While much has been written about the national parks teeming with tigers in Madhya Pradesh, here’s a look at three tiger reserves in the south that also offer a high likelihood of sighting those sought-after stripes.
The 2018 census showed that there are 2,967 tigers in India, the largest population in the wild in the world. The big cat census is conducted once in four years and the 2021 census has begun. The good news is that tiger numbers seem to be up in most Indian states, with plenty of cubs (who are not included in the count) as well. This is a sign of healthier forests, despite all the evils that threaten them, including poaching, man/animal conflict, loss of habitat and wildlife corridors through deforestation, mining, unchecked development, road construction, etc. It’s good news for travellers who love the wilderness experience too.
The states of South India have lush forests and a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Many of the forests are connected by the much-needed green corridors that allow wildlife to migrate as they would according to their natural rhythms. There are a lot of options for the wildlife enthusiast to explore amongst all the sanctuaries in this vast region that’s characterised by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, but here’s our pick of three tiger reserves to get you started on your big cat travel binge.
Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka
The Bandipur Tiger Reserve, spanning 874sq.km, was one of the first wildlife reserves to adopt Project Tiger. It’s accessible by road from Coimbatore airport and Mysore railway station. The best time to plan a visit is November to May, although it is open during the monsoons and offers a different experience even then. Largely made up of moist and dry deciduous forests with scrublands, the reserve also has fragrant forests of sandalwood which are protected as much as the animals, birds and reptiles. Besides the population of 173 tigers, and over 230 species of birds, you could also encounter spotted deer, sambar, four-horned antelope, Malabar giant squirrel, black-naped hare, porcupines, sloth bears, jackals, wild dogs, panthers, and elephants. The Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, a good place to sight marsh crocodiles too, is not far.
Pro Tip: Close to Bandipur, we’ve enjoyed safaris in Biligirirangana Hills (also known as the BR Hills sanctuary), which is also a designated tiger reserve. Choose the forest department tents there if you prefer a wildlife experience truly off the beaten path.
Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala
An expansive lake surrounded by a mix of tropical evergreen forests, tropical semi-evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, grasslands, and eucalyptus plantations make up this 777 sq km reserve. As per the latest census, Kerala has a total of 166 to 215 tigers, with about 35 in Periyar Tiger Reserve although this varies as there are no barriers between the forests of different reserves, national parks and states. It is accessible by road from Kochi and Madurai airports and Kottayam railway station. The best time to plan a visit to Mudumalai is between October and May. Apart from tigers, you could see elephants, spotted deer, gaur, panthers, sambars, barking deer, wild boar, sloth bears, Nilgiri langurs, lion-tailed macaques, otters, Malabar giant squirrels, wild dogs, etc. Other fun options are trekking and rafting programmes, a tribal museum visit at Mannakudy, tiger trails, and overnight camping.
Pro tip: We took permission to do a lovely all-day hike through the forest with a guide. It’s the best way to get up close with the jungle. But don’t forget to bring tobacco to sprinkle on leeches that are often around during the wet season.
Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu
The Mudumalai National Park is the second oldest in India. Since 2007, it has also been designated a tiger reserve and now has the largest density of tigers among the five reserves in the state. Its forests that are semi-evergreen, moist deciduous, dry deciduous, and scrub, as well as swampy areas and grasslands cover a total of about 688 sq km. The nearest town of Masinagudi (seven km away from the reserve) is accessible by road from the airports of Calicut, Coimbatore and Bengaluru, MTR is close to Mysore and Udhagamandalam (Ooty) too. The best time to plan a visit is February to June. With 103 tigers at last count as well as other wild animals such as elephants, gaur, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer, wild boar, leopards, wild dogs, birds such as hornbills, fairy bluebirds, and reptiles such as pythons and flying lizards, etc. Trails along the Moyar River and a visit to the Theppakadu elephant camp can add excitement to your visit. Pykara Lake nearby is a serene spot for a picnic if you have had your fill of the forest.
Pro Tip: Book a jeep or elephant safari with the state forest department in advance, or else you’ll be at the mercy of private operators who don’t have any jungle knowledge or even interest. At dusk, watch out for hundreds of deer eyes glowing in the dark as the herd gathers close to human habitation to sleep.