With India’s conservation efforts leading to a rise in its wild tiger population, TTG goes in search of these magnificent big cats on a new tour.
“Head on – M1!” Our driver is shouting from our vehicle to another. The eyes of the other motorist and his five passengers widen in unison.
“M1?” asks the other driver, a middle-aged Indian man dressed all in emerald green.
“Head on!” our young driver bellows back as the other jeep tears off in the direction we’ve just come from. It’s too late though. They’ve missed all the action.
We’re not in a motorway collision in the UK – we’re in the wilds of Kanha Tiger Reserve in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. M1 is the code for a large juvenile tiger, which many local guides suspect will be the next dominant male.
We’ve just had an incredible encounter, with him nonchalantly pacing straight towards us (“head on,” in safari lingo). But he’s eluded the rest of the guides for days.
I’d been out on safari in Bandhavgarh national park and Kanha Tiger Reserve for around 20 hours before I spotted M1 waiting in the wings. He has certainly kept us waiting.
I’ve risen at 5am each safari day on this trip across India’s national parks and tiger reserves, searching again after lunch.
Drivers and guides are attuned to the alarm calls of grey long-tailed langur monkeys, and to the birds and spotted deer that send warnings of approaching predators. We frequently stop, listen, watch and wait. But – until this evening – we’ve not seen what they’ve clearly noticed: the awesome, apex predator that has surely seen us.
India is home to around 80% of the world’s tigers, with the state of Madhya Pradesh having the highest concentration in the country, and – thanks to conservation efforts – India’s wild Royal Bengal tigers have doubled in number since 2006.
“There were just 1,411 tigers remaining in the wild in India in 2006,” says Mohan Joshi, head naturalist for King’s Lodge, a gorgeous, twisted timber eco-resort near Bandhavgarh national park. “But by the 2014 census, that had increased to 2,226. In the most recent study, released in July last year, that number had leapt up to 2,967.”
I’ve been obsessed with tigers since infancy, so I gave myself the best possible chance of a sighting by joining Hayes & Jarvis’s new In Search of Tigers tour, launched in December last year.
Along with visiting the iconic Taj Mahal (with overnight stays in Delhi at the start and Mumbai at the end of the tour), this itinerary covers four of India’s national parks – Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench and Tadoba – across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Offering 12 forest safaris across six days in some of India’s least-visited parks alongside naturalist experts, this trip affords clients an excellent chance of spotting Royal Bengal tigers.
Best time to visit: October to March.
Visas: British visitors require a visa before travelling to India. Clients’ passports must be machine-readable, with at least two blank pages, and valid for a minimum of 180 days at the time of their visa application.
Vaccinations: While most of India is malaria-free, the area around Kanha national park can be a malarial zone, so advise clients to consult their travel clinic.
You’d certainly think it would be a piece of cake, glimpsing a tangerine-coloured cat the size of a Shetland pony against the earth tones of the national park and the muted, sage-green hues of misty forest, but it’s only when you’re actually trying to spot tigers through tangles of jungle undergrowth that you realise quite how much bamboo leaves look like tiger stripes.
Masters of ambush hunting, tigers are particularly difficult to see or hear. The soft pads on their feet make their movements near-silent, but this offers one advantage for clients wanting to photograph these elusive cats: tigers don’t like the feel of forest undergrowth against their delicate paws, so they often take to the trails worn smooth by safari vehicles.
When M1 paces out of the jungle and onto the track, it’s clear he’s not hiding from us.
With king-of-the-jungle confidence, he strides across the pathway, teeth and claws slicing the atmosphere as he stalks his prey.
Regarding the revving engine of our safari vehicle and our guide’s excited chattering with utter indifference, he casually sprays his scent against a tree, then turns towards us and follows our jeep as our driver edges away from him in first gear.
As he stares straight down the barrel of my camera, the vibrant tiger is anything but camouflaged: he positively drains the colour from the surrounding jungle. Beautiful and deadly, dangerous and endangered, everything else fades to grey when you look into a tiger’s gleaming, amber eyes.
BOOK IT: Hayes & Jarvis offers the 15-day In Search of Tigers tour from £3,699pp including flights, accommodation, most meals, the Agra-Katni overnight train, safari drives and excursions.
Smarter: Park entry fees are cheaper for locals than foreign tourists, which means your clients might be sharing vehicles with visitors who treat wildlife safaris more casually than they’d like. Suggest clients travel in a group of four to get a vehicle and guide to themselves, or pay to hire the whole jeep for at least a day or two of their trip to ensure they have the best chance of unrestricted photography.
Better: If your clients haven’t visited Mumbai before, suggest they stay on for a day or two to take in the city. Hayes & Jarvis can organise Bollywood experiences and city tours. Also recommend they take a ferry to the incredible cave temples of Elephanta Island (India’s answer to Petra), and finish the day with a spa visit or a stay at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
Fairer: Accommodation options for this trip include Pugdundee’s safari properties: King’s Lodge Hotel, Kanha Earth Lodge, and Pench Tree Lodge. Pugdundee runs several conservation initiatives, such as education programmes for local children; banning single-use plastics from their properties; reforestation schemes; and running charity bike rides to support wildlife corridors.