Eighteen months ago I travelled to India for the first time. I was surprised by how many animals there were! Monkeys live in temples and on rooftops and make raids on the fruit stands. Cows, goats, and dogs wander thru the streets and invade traffic in even the biggest cities. Out in the farmlands, antelope and deer graze in the fields, while camels, donkeys, horses and elephants are being used for transport and farm work.
This harmonious living with animals should not have surprised me. Feeding animals is one of the ways to earn good karma in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, and while certain days are set aside for this task, many Hindus feel it is a good deed to feed animals daily.
Nature documentaries on PBS have been popular recently on the Asiatic lions in Gujarat, and the symbiotic relationship which has developed between them and the local farmers, who happily welcome the lions to hunt in their grain fields at night. And various international magazines have been telling the story of tiger conservation in India.
I had also heard about Taj hotels partnering with &Beyond safari lodges to build some luxury wildlife lodges in India, so I began searching for options for a wildlife trip to India as an excuse to return to this fascinating country.
Most trips to India focus on history and culture, with a little wildlife, but I wanted a trip focused on wildlife, with a bit of India’s history and culture. After a lot of research, I focused on three of the game reserves in Central India, and created a small group tour we eventually named, ‘Tigers & Taj – A Wilderness Experience in India.’
We had an amazing trip. I’ve been to Africa a number of times, and knew the India experience would not be quite as rich as what one can see in Africa; however, it was richer than I expected with many enjoyable animal encounters to keep the wildlife enthusiast entertained.
There are no private wildlife reserves in India, at least not the region I went to, so all the camps are outside of the parks, meaning, it is a longer drive to get in and out of the wildlife rich areas each day. However, India’s colorful villages and children, the women working in bright saris, the small farm plots and mud walls and watch towers, the crazy combination of conveyances on India’s roads-- this all keeps one entertained on the way to and from the Parks. The times and access are strictly controlled, but much of it is designed to better protect the animals, so I cannot argue with that. Elephant and night safaris are no longer generally allowed as it can be more disruptive to the animals; however, rangers and workers still use elephant to patrol the park and keep an eye on the inhabitants.
Vehicles cannot go off road, so the naturalists patrol and circle, no radios or phones are allowed, so rangers and guides pass along suggestions and gossip and jeeps sometimes careen to join the pack and jostle for space to get the best viewing angles. Still, I didn’t encounter more than 15 jeeps, and generally it was 2 or 3 at the most for our leopard or tiger sightings, certainly not like in the public game parks of some African countries.
Most of the travelers in my group have, like me, been to Africa on a number of wildlife safaris – and most had not really had India on their ‘wish lists.’ But being wildlife lovers, they were happy to give India a chance, and we were all very happily surprised.
Like Africa, India’s parks are rich in deer and antelope, boar and fat ground birds like peacocks on which the predators feed. So spotted deer (chital) and Sambur sightings are common. In Kanha they have a type of swamp deer which no longer lives anywhere else, as well as smaller barking deer and larger antelope called a Nilgai. Gaur, a native bison are also common sightings, as are many interesting birds including owls and eagle and other birds of prey.
Unlike most of Africa, monkey are also common and provide many close encounters and comical photographs! My favorite are the black faced Langurs… elegant in their movements they are everywhere in the parks we visited, giving alert calls when predators approach, and sharing the care of the babies in their troop. The red-faced rhesus macaques were less common in the parks, but very common in the cities. Early on I was told the red faced were the ‘naughty’ monkeys and the black faced were the better behaved, although I’ve seen both raid fruit stands and hang from electrical wires and jump from roof to roof in the cities. And both are also seen begging along the highways of India for a handout.
Any wildlife preserve in the world hosts good bird life, but once again, India takes a place of pride by offering some of the brightest and most interesting of birds. Where else do you see peacocks strutting around in the wild at every turn, and a dozen other flying jewels which one hopes in vain to be able to capture in a photo.
But what we really hope to see, of course, are the predators… on my eight days in these nature preserves we saw many jackels, sloth bear, a wolf, a pack of wild dog, leopard, and best of all, tiger!
Our guide told us that you do not see a tiger, a tiger reveals itself to you, and we found that to be true on our first evening sighting in Banghavgarh. A large unknown male was seen pacing thru the saal forest, we raced up the road to a little clearing to get a better look. He stepped out, laid down for a bit, and silently disappeared and reappeared from our sight! These creatures are orange and black, maybe the flashiest colors of any predator, yet somehow they can still cloak themselves from view with a twitch.
How such a huge creature can disappear in grass at will is amazing. But on other days we were lucky to see a mother and two yearling cubs come down to the water to drink. They lazed and played and cooled off laying half in and half out of the water, impervious to our fascinated gaze.
I did have two people in my group who have not been to Africa, but another half dozen people I counseled to go to Africa first, then I’d be happy to find a tiger trip for them to India if they wanted to go in the future. I still think that would be my advice – both are expensive trips and a commitment in time. If the focus is wildlife, I would do Africa first, but after my second experience of India, I can happily recommend it to anyone who is looking for another wildlife adventure, and of course, it is the only place to see wild Bengal tigers, or rather, have wild Bengal tigers reveal themselves to you!