It might come as a surprise to learn that there are 50 tiger reserves in India, with the country host to more than two-thirds of the world’s tiger population – indeed, at the last count there were over 3,000 animals, up by a third in just four years. This guide will introduce you to the best destinations to maximise your chance at spotting this elusive big cat, while pointing you in the direction of the finest accommodation. With jungle-clad spas and luxury tented camps, going on safari takes on a glamorous air.
Once the royal hunting grounds of the Jaipur maharajas, today Ranthambore National Park has opened its 1,300 square kilometres of ridge-dotted scrub to all. And the tigers seem comfortable there, hunting in broad daylight unperturbed by humans. Their brashness has been rewarded with an ever-growing number of young which, when combined with Ranthambore’s relatively small size, ranks the reserve among India’s finest for tiger sightings.
And, the jungle’s greenery is dotted with much more than that famous orange and black, though bengal tigers in particular are certainly in abundance. There are healthy populations of everything from hyenas and bats to jungle cats and leopards. There are also plenty of reptiles featured, including marsh crocodiles, desert monitor lizards and tortoises. You’ll also be treated to an intriguing human history, with the park centred around a thousand-year-old fort. Like its Rajasthani siblings, its stern battlements hide a once-lavish palace interior that rises above the treeline. And, across the park, your safaris will see you stumble across regal pavilions, ancient temples and chhatri burial tombs given over to tangled vines.
As the country’s favourite tiger-spotting destination, Ranthambore swaps the ramshackle hides of its reserve cousins for a collection of luxury lodges. The highlight is the Oberoi Vanyavilas. Ranking among India’s finest hotels, its 25 luxuriously appointed tents feature four-poster beds, claw-footed bathtubs and marble bathrooms. Camping in the Lake District this is not, with gourmet dining and spa treatments dispensed in the 20 acres of manicured gardens. You can also experience the park’s delights as part of a luxury rail journey. Let bar-car indulgences and gilded private cabins link Rajasthan’s highlights with Ranthambore’s tigers. (For another Rajasthan holiday idea, see our Highlights of Rajasthan sample itinerary.)
Central Madhya Pradesh, as India’s second largest state, features the country’s highest concentration of tiger reserves, with no fewer than six vying for your attention. In comparison to Ranthambore, you’ll be treated to a more off-the-beaten-track charm, often finding whole forests to yourself.
The twin highlights are Kanha and Bandhavgarh. The latter presents the best opportunities for tiger spotting, tying with Ranthambore for sightings. And the reserve’s 68 stripy favourites are mostly found roaming the park’s core 453 square kilometres, forming India’s highest density of tigers. What’s more, with topography that ranges from rocky ranges to grassy swamps and forested valleys, you’ll also have the chance to spot jackals, sloth bears and the park’s 40-strong population of retiring leopards. There’s also the small matter of the 10th-century fort, perched some 800 metres above the park’s gently sloping valleys.
In contrast, although Kanha features 22 more tigers and 60 more leopards supported by vast herds of deer and antelope, it’s more than twice the size. As such, expect slightly fewer sightings but a much more immersive experience. Lose yourself in everything from grassy meadows and bamboo forests to shimmering lakes, waterfalls and rocky gorges. It’s a diverse array of ecosystems that supports a suitably varied collection of wildlife, with langurs, Indian bison and the world’s only southern swamp deer all represented.
Accommodation is equally impressive. In Bandhavgarh, you can stay in luxurious kutiyas – rustic village huts whose pottery roof tiles and wooden shutters look out over private courtyards. Here, you’ll return from game drives to Ayurvedic massages and sumptuous cuisine fresh from the tandoor oven. Not to be outdone, in Kanha, you can stay right on the Banjaar River in a tented suite that overlooks the reserve’s lush forests and grassy meadows. It’s a view best taken on your private deck with a sundowner cocktail.