India is famed for its wildlife. Its national parks are home to some of the world’s most fragile eco-systems, a mosaic of mangrove swamps, alpine meadows, dense rainforest and arid desertscapes. Whilst India’s call of the wild is the famed Bengal tiger, keeping your eyes peeled for an array of endemic flora and fauna as you scale the country’s national parks is bound to delight. So whether it’s coming face to face with big cats, or simply soaking up the natural splendour of India that whets your appetite, we’ve handpicked a selection of India's best national parks to visit throughout the country.
Tiger country in pictures
Ric Duncombe, Imagine India specialist: “Cat vs Dog is something that always seems to be churning away in my mind. I will purr to feline fanciers and bark the right bark to canine lovers… Sitting on the fence seems to be my overwhelming attribute. However, when it comes to Central India there really is only one top dog. And it’s a cat. I recently visited India’s national parks to try and show that with a little bit of luck, this most elusive of animals could not only be seen, but also photographed by a rank amateur such as myself. Choosing Bandhavgarh National Park, renowned for its high concentration of tigers, I headed out on just three drives with two of Imagine’s favourite lodges to try my luck. Here are my favourite snaps, and also some small stories behind each one, to get you in the mood to explore the real-life Jungle Book. All photos are taken with a Canon 5D SLR and Canon 300mm F/4L lens."
I headed out from Treehouse Hideaway at 0430, wrapped in two pairs of jeans and seemingly all my t-shirts. The cold in December lingers until the sun fully rises, which means several hours of buffeting by the chilly air in the back of the toy-like Suzuki Jeep. It is fun though, and it keeps you wide awake! We had been driving for a couple of hours, thankfully the sun was just breaching the treeline, so enough light was available for us to now realistically look for the tigers in the thick jungle. In the end, it wasn’t a tiger at all that attracted our attention. A park elephant appeared in a clearing, two mahouts atop her huge back. Elephants are used to help monitor the tigers' movements, so seeing an elephant usually means that the cats are close! It wasn’t long before other people caught on to our plan, and before I knew it, a throng of other jeeps had appeared on the narrow forest path. The changing of camera lenses and polishing of binoculars built up the collective anticipation. Finally our first tiger came into view. Not at all distracted by his audience. A young male patrolling with his two sisters, perhaps two years old. What I like about this photo is that it looks perfectly natural. The tiger is at ease in his kingdom, and it really is his world! What I loved to see in this picture for the first time, is just how many colours in the forest the tiger matches. Take away the greens and it is every single one of them! India’s jungles really are made for their big cats.
2. Eye to eye
This was it, the absolute money shot! I actually blew it, the focus is locked to his paw, rather than his eyes and it was actually this photo that led me to discover a fault with my camera and buy a new one… So for me personally (and financially!) it is quite an important photo. But putting that aside I still love it. We are actually on a road here, still with the guys from Treehouse Hideaway. What you cannot see are all the other vehicles frantically trying to get a view! As nature would have it, where we were previously at the back of the queue, but the tigers moved on and suddenly we were at the front, and perfectly positioned to peer through the gorgeous jungle and meet the tiger face to face. I must have taken a hundred photos (all with my very picky focus issue!) but each one reminds me how close we managed to get, and that moment where I sat eye to eye with the tiger. Something I will never forget.
3. The dream picture
I love photographing wildlife in its natural habitat, using focus to blur surroundings and make the animal appear part of the living, moving world of its home. Before I came to India I had been in Tanzania and Uganda, trying this technique with pretty good results with gorillas and chimpanzees. I wasn’t even expecting to see much more than a tiger's tail, let alone get the chance to try to dictate a photo! Fortunately I did get my chance, and this is the result: seeing where tiger stops and forest begins.
4. Alert, aware, involved
I had changed accommodations to the gorgeous Samode Safari Lodge and so began a different sort of tiger safari. We had done the whole ‘follow the crowd’ route, which yielded excellent results and some pleasing photos. But this, while productive, isn’t the most natural setting for tigers, as you share it with plenty of other people! Therefore, we decided to set out to find our own tiger. This is a process that, if anything, teaches patience! You can see already in the photo below, that it is sunny, it is hot. This is because it is taken a lot later in the morning! We drove out through the beautiful park, up around ravines and along plateaus, a long way away from another human being. Every now and then we would stop, kill the engine and listen. The silence was deafening and we would repeat this process all morning, while always looking out for pugmarks, the tell-tail fingerprints of the tigers who use the roads for easy forest highways. Every so often the silence though would be interrupted. A bark, a shout, a call. An alarm! The forest’s inhabitants look out for one and other but also create a brilliant tiger early warning system and this is what we used to track down three tigers, just before the park closed. And they were our tigers! No other cars, just us and these magnificent animals. What I love about this photo is that it came during real tiger behaviour as this male searched for his two sisters. Barking, meowing, calling. They were talking to each other, looking for each other in the forest! I managed to capture this male listening out to his sisters. I love how alert he is, his big ears erect and interested and the focus, with a hint of confusion in his eyes as he tries to track down his missing family.
5. The last photo
This is the same group of tigers as before, and right at the end of the morning in Bandhavgarh. We had these three tigers to ourselves for 20 minutes or so, but painfully we have to leave them as there are heavy fines for outstaying your welcome inside the park and we must race back to the nearest gate. Just before we left, I managed to take this photo of our tiger walking back into its jungle home, returning to the forest. It seemed quite apt and left me with a sense of positivity that the tiger numbers in India are constantly on the rise. Their great stripy cat is returning to her forests.
Want to follow in Ric’s footsteps? These are our favourite properties to base yourself at when going in search of India’s majestic tigers:
Five private thatched treehouses camouflaged among the branches at the edge of Bandhavgarh National Park which provide wonderfully rustic comfort.
Samode Safari Lodge
A delightful small eco-lodge in Bandhavgarh National Park with friendly service and elegant accommodation.
Reni Pani Lodge
A beguiling small lodge in Satpura National Park offering considerable comfort and beautiful surroundings.