After being shuttered due to the pandemic, India’s national parks and sanctuaries have reopened just in time for peak wildlife-spotting season. From the majestic tiger to the tiny red panda, we’ve put together a handy guide to the best wildlife experiences in the country.
Beyond bustling urban India lies over a 100 national parks and 500 wildlife sanctuaries that protect a wealth of flora and fauna. The variety of terrain, whether alpine Himalayan, rocky desert, or tropical forest, allows the country to play host to a range of wildlife. Here are seven Indian creatures that should be on your wildlife bucket list and the best places to find them.
It’s estimated that 200 years ago, 58,000 tigers roamed India’s forests. By 1970, years of hunting and habitat destruction left only 2,000 of the magnificent creatures in the wild. Recent numbers hint at a silver lining—according to a recent government census report, the tiger population increased from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018. However, we clearly have a long way to go from bringing this big cat back from the brink of extinction. Depleting habitats and fragmented forest corridors means that 70–80 per cent of India’s tigers are currently spread across 50 reserves, many averaging less than 1,500 sq km. If this continues, scientists predict the genetic diversity of small reserve populations could fall within a century.
Where to spot them: About one-third of India’s tiger population can be found in central India. Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh has the highest density of the big cats, which means there’s a greater chance of spotting one during a safari. The region was part of the Maharaja of Rewa’s hunting ground till 1968 and became a reserve under Project Tiger in 1993. In mid-2020, the park welcomed six new tiger cubs and three leopard cubs. Of the three zones within the park, some claim Tala offers the best tiger sighting opportunities.
When to go: Bandhavgarh National Park is open from October to June.
The Asiatic Lion is a slightly smaller version of its cousin the African lion and distinguishable by a fold of skin that runs along its belly. India’s population of 674 lions, according to government figures, can currently only be found in Gir, Gujarat. While lions roam freely across 250 sq. km of Gir National Park, the remaining 1,200 sq. km brings them into contact with humans and livestock. Being confined to such a small area also makes them vulnerable to epidemics, a problem the Indian government is trying to remedy through Project Lion. The initiative, which was launched on August 15, 2020, seeks to develop alternative habitats and translocate lions from Gujarat to other parts of India to give the species a greater chance at survival.
Where to spot them: Gir National Park in Gujarat is the only place to encounter an Asiatic lion in India. While you’re most likely to spot one in the open scrub and grassland areas of the park, the hilly terrain offers opportunities to spot jackal, leopards, antelope and deer. The park is also home to crocodiles and 300 species of birds.
When to go: Gir National Park is open from mid-October to mid-June annually.
This endangered big cat is native to the high mountains of Central and South Asia. Estimates put its global population between 4,500 and 7,500 individuals with 200-600 found in the higher Himalayan regions in India. The snow leopard is highly threatened and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to poaching for its pelt, climate change, mining and a dwindling natural prey base. It’s also one of the lesser studied big cats due to inaccessibility to its habitats and its shy, solitary nature. In 2020, the Uttarakhand government announced plans to set up India’s first snow leopard conservation centre which will be built at the entry point to Gangotri National Park.
Where to spot them: The snow leopard’s elusive nature makes it difficult to spot but try your luck at Hemis National Park in Ladakh. You’re likely to catch the ‘ghost of the mountains’ at the park’s lower altitudes where it descends to catch prey. Other endangered species to look out for here include the Eurasian brown bear, Tibetan wolf and red fox.
When to go: December to February gives you the best chance to glimpse a snow leopard in the wild.
The red panda is distinguished by its russet fur, white markings on the side of its head and black belly and limbs. It’s native to the eastern Himalayas and can be found across Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal in India. The ICUN has observed a 50 per cent decline in the population of red pandas and classified it as endangered. Poaching and illegal trafficking pose the greatest threat to the red panda, which in India is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which means it is accorded the same protection as tigers.
Where to spot them: The lush Khangchendzonga National Park in Sikkim is a gorgeous place to sight a red panda, but keep in mind these creatures are shy. Spread across 1,784 sq km, the high altitude park overlooks the world’s third highest peak, Kanchenjunga. In 2016, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered a biodiversity hotspot with several endemic, rare and threatened species of flora and fauna.
When to go: The summer months of March to May is the most popular time for visitors.
According to the IUCN, the global population of the Asian elephant is merely 6-8 per cent of its African cousin. A 2017 census report estimated the number of elephants in India to be 27,000. However, despite being afforded the same level of protection as the tiger under India’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, elephants continue to be threatened due to loss of habitat and resulting human-animal conflict. A loophole in the act, which considers elephants that are ‘gifted’ or ‘inherited’ as exceptions, leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and illegal trafficking.
Where to spot them: Bandipur National Park in Karnataka nurtures approximately 2,500 elephants. Once the hunting ground for the royals of Mysore, the 874sq km park is now part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which is one of the largest habitats for wild elephants in India and South Asia. You can also spot tigers, slot bears and the rare flying lizard here.
When to go: Dry season, i.e., March to May is ideal.
The one-horned rhino or Indian rhino is found only in the Indian subcontinent. Successful conservation efforts in India have led to a gradual rise in population from 75 in 1905 to 2,700 by 2012. The one-horned rhino is also the only large mammal in Asia to have been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable by the IUCN in 2008. Nevertheless, the species is prone to high risk from poaching, loss of its grassland habitat and natural calamity.
Where to spot them: Kaziranga National Park in Assam accounts for 67 per cent of the global population of the one-horned rhino. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the park is located in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra and encompasses grasslands, wetlands and forests. Other animals you’re likely to encounter here are elephants, eastern swamp deer and reptiles like the reticulated python and rock python here.
When to go: November to April. Avoid the monsoon as the region is prone to floods.
Great Indian Bustard
The Great Indian Bustard was once present across western India and parts of Pakistan, especially in the Thar desert and Deccan plateau. Today, the grassland species is largely confined to Rajasthan and Gujarat though a few are also found in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The bird is easily identifiable by its black crown, pale brown body and wings marked with black, brown and grey. In 2011, the Great Indian Bustard was declared critically endangered by the IUCN. Two years later, the Rajasthan government announced the Rs 12-crore Project Great Indian Bustard to revive the species in India. The primary stages of the initiative involves protecting breeding sites, a necessity considering the bird is a slow breeder.
Where to spot them: About 122 of the remaining Great Indian Bustards in India are concentrated near Desert National Park, close to Jaisalmer and Barmer, in Rajasthan. The sandy, rocky region is home to an abundance of avian life, including Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon vultures and the Saker Falcon as well as black bucks, chinkara and desert foxes.
When to go: Make a trip between October and March, before the weather gets oppressively hot.