Two years ago I saw a tiger in the wild for the first time, in Bandavgarh National Park. It still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end just thinking about it.
We'd tracked her for almost half an hour as we drove along a dirt track and she walked amongst thick undergrowth alongside. We could track her progress by the movement of the bushes. She moved in virtual silence, but every few minutes she would let out a deep, deep growl.
The tension was incredible. She was so close. Would she pounce? Or would she just disappear before we got the chance to see her clearly? Instead she just padded her way, cool as you like, out onto our dirt track and across the front of our jeep. Soon she was directly in front of us. I could have jumped on her back!
Driving through the open meadows of Kanha National Park. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.
This month I revisited Bandavgarh and a number of other tiger parks in India. Luck wasn't with me this time, but the thrill of going on safari in India never subsides.
Sadly, no, shamefully, tiger numbers are still on the decline, with poaching still the number one threat. in 2009 there were 86 reported tiger deaths in India alone, and the number of wild tigers left here is now estimated to be just 1400. At the turn of the last century it was 40,000.
The truth of the matter is, we could be one of the last remaining generations on Earth that gets the chance to see this incredible creature in the wild.
The best place for seeing tigers is still India, with almost half the world's wild tigers, but there are 39 tiger sanctuaries here. To help you decide where to get your big-cat kicks, here's my pick of India's safari parks:
Bandavgarh, Madhya Pradesh
This is your best chance in all of India of seeing a wild tiger. You're almost guaranteed a sighting if you spend one or two days here. An added attraction is that the village of Tala, right by the park's main gate, has a great choice of accommodation to suit all budgets, meaning that unlike some other tiger parks this one's not only for the rich, all-inclusive package tourist. One- or two-hour safaris on elephant-back are also an option here.
Kanha, Madhya Pradesh
The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is the king of tiger territory in India. Five tiger parks here all give tourists a chance of seeing a tiger, but this one is the most famous of them all. The forests here are vast, and whilst your chances of seeing a tiger are probably slightly slimmer than at nearby Bandavgarh, they are still very good. Add to that the fact that you can really go deep into the forest here thanks to the park's huge core area surrounded by a large buffer zone, and you have yourself a complete safari experience, rather than the rush-and-grab outings some complain of at Bandavgarh.
Sunderbans, West Bengal
This famous park has a huge number of Bengal tigers - more than two hundred by some counts! The swampy terrain, though, means seeing one of them is extremely rare, but you'll have great fun trying. Just getting here is an adventure (from Kolkatta: bus, boat, cycle rickshaw and boat again) and once you arrive, you'll be signing up for safaris not in jeeps, but in canoes!
Pench, Madhya Pradesh
The third of Madhya Pradesh's trio of best-known tiger parks, Pench is made up mostly of teak-tree forest rather than sal so has a different flavour than nearby Kanha or Bandavgarh. It also sees fewer tourists so, as you're driving around the park you'll often feel like you have the whole forest to yourself. Tigers are fewer too, though, but are generally spotted every few days. When I was here, most people who were out in jeeps that morning had seen a tiger during their stay. As with Kanha, mahouts ride their elephants into the forest in the mornings and radio jeeps in if they spot a tiger. Tourists are then transferred from jeep to elephant-back to get a close-up view of the tiger.
Originally called Hailey National Park, Corbett opened in 1936 and is India's oldest tiger park. Chances of seeing tigers here are actually quite slim, but if you do you can feel smug in the fact that you've seen one that wasn't baited or tracked. In other parks, tiger sightings can sometimes feel stage-managed. Not here. And if you don't see a tiger, there may well be a great big consolation prize: Corbett is also one of the few parks in northern India with wild elephants, and chances of seeing them here are very good indeed.
Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, Gujarat
Chances of seeing a tiger here are zero. There are none. This is home instead to the last remaining wild Asian lions on Earth. Yes, wild lions in India! Panthera leo persica is a different subspecies to its African cousin, panthera leo leo, and at one time these lions roamed from south Asia all the way to the edge of Europe. In fact, it's probable that these Asiatic lions were the ones that gladiators used to do battle against in stadiums in ancient Rome. If the thrill of tiger safaris gets your pulse racing, you'll love a visit to this park just as much as any of the ones mentioned above. And most tourists who spend a few days here see at least one lion.
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