The Indian forests team with wildlife of a varied species. Most forests are protected national parks, providing sanctuaries to several special or endangered species of animals and in some cases to migratory birds.
All across the country are wildlife sanctuaries whose area extend over several thousand of square kilometres, where wildlife can be observed in its natural surroundings. Each sanctuary supports several species of wildlife, but is usually well known for one particular species. In some cases, these are rare or even endangered species.
Project Tiger, initiated in 1973, identified major areas inhabited by tigers. These became area protected by the projects, enabling a significant increase of the tiger population. Bandhavgarh and Kanha sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh; Sariska and Rabnthambore in Rajasthan and derbans in West Bengal are some of the country’s best known tiger reserves. Other species at these places include panthers,a nd several species of deer and antelope the commonest of which are axis deer and blue bull.
Bharatpur, a five-hour drive from Delhi, has the largest bird sanctuary in Asia. Waterbirds that migrate from other parts of the country include herons, ibis, pelican, painted storks, spoonbills, agrets and openbilled strokes. Various species of ducks and geese migrate from place in Russia. These include Brahminy ducks and the endangered Siberian crane. Stretched over 29 sq. km of swamps and marshes, Bharatpur has causeways which can be negotiated on foot, or bicycle, the best time for a visit from October to March when the weather is relatively pleasant and when the sanctuary teems with birdlife. July-August is the breeding seasons for the resident species.
October to March is the most pleasant time to visit any sanctuary in the country, with the exception of Dachigam in Kasmir which is best visited during summer. However, the chances of spotting wildlife are better from March to June when the weather is hot, end the sun dries the dense foliage which otherwise provides effective cover for the animals.
All wildlife sanctuaries are accessible by car, and all have accommodation within or near them. Many have specific visiting hours and provide forest rangers with each party of visitors. The advantages is that with their intimate knowledge of the forest and the habits of each animal, little time is wasted getting to a spot where animals are most likely to be seen.
Rules and regulations for wildlife sanctuaries are no more than those dictated by common sense: wear clothes that blend rather than stand out in the forest; perfumes and cigarettes should be avoided for animals have an extremely keen sense of smell, Potentially dangerous animals should not be approached on foot.
Jim Corbett National Park
For tourists who love nature – sprawling grasslands, dense forests and wildlife – a few days of tranquillity and serenity in what could be called a Garden of Eden, India offers an array of National Parks and Sanctuaries where you can watch the magnificent tigers, the stately elephants, leopards, the one-horned rhinos, a myriad exotic birds and countless reptiles and insects. This is the land of Rudyard Kipling’s Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli as well as Jim Corbett’s Land of the maneaters.
CORBETT NATIONAL PARK, seven hours drive from Delhi, is in the forested foothills of the Himalayas in Uttaranchal. The 520 sq kms park is spread across flat valleys, hilly ridges and rolling grasslands. Though the sal is the dominant tree of the region, 110 varieties of trees and 30 species of bamboo can be found in Corbett. The magnificent Ramganga river teeming with fish, in particular the mahaseer, flows through the park. Corbett is famed for its tigers and large herds of wild elephants. You may get up in the morning and just a few hundred yards from the forest lodge you may see wild baby elephants chasing each other or making mock charges at their proud mamas.
One of the most exhilarating features of Corbett is the ride on elephant back at day break. It is cold and as you huddle in groups of four on the elephant’s back, the mahout steers through dense foliage and 3 m tall elephant grass where a tiger may be lurking. Even if you are not lucky enough to spot a tiger you cannot miss the cheetal, sambar, hog deer and barking deer. Corbett is the home of 50 species of mammals, 580 kinds of birds and 25 reptile species. The long-nosed gharial and crocodiles can be seen basking on the banks of the river.
DUDHWA NATIONAL PARK, in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttaranchal, on the border of Nepal, has tall coarse grass sometimes forming impenetrable thickets, swampy depressions and lakes and excellent sal and bamboo forests. Dudhwa is home to the magnificent barasingha, the 12 horned swamp deer. In the rutting season the barasingha lock horns in battle for the female and if you are lucky to see the combat it is an unforgettable spectacle. The big predators of the park are the tiger and the leopard. You can also find the sloth bear, jackals, civet cats, wild boar and, of course, a few rhinos in the grasslands. Colourful woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers, minivets, bee-eaters and bulbuls flit through the forest canopy. At night the great Indian horned owl and jungle owlet set out on their predatory missions.
The best time to visit Corbett and Dudhwa is November to May. There is enough accommodation, private and government run, inside the parks and around them. But the expanding human population around both reserves is telling on these parks.
Sundarbans National Park
KANHA NATIONAL PARK In the Mandia district of Madhya Pradesh, Kanha along with the neighbouring Bandhavgarh National Park, is the heart of tiger land. With the largest population of tigers in these two reserves and the adjoining forest areas, Madhya Pradesh has been given the title of Tiger State. The Surpan river meanders through the central maidans of this almost 2000 sq kms park (‘core’ area of 940 sq kms).
The grasslands of Kanha, interspersed with exquisite sal forests, are teeming with a variety of deer, barasingha, the cheetal or spotted deer, the chousingha (four horned antelopes), nilgai or blue bull, wild boar and wild dogs called ‘dhole’. But probably the most spectacular animal after the tiger in this reserve is the gaur or Indian bison. Very similar to the American bison that were hunted down by American colonisers, the Indian gaur symbolises power. It looks ferocious and when it comes thundering across the grasslands you have to seek cover.
The animals of Kanha are best observed from elephant back and the open country increases the chances of sighting. The forest guards keep a close watch on the movement of tigers and when one is sighted, an alert is sounded and several elephants converge on the spot for maximum viewing of this magnificent creature. However, conservationists have recently been critical of the cornering of tigers in this manner. At night as you sit outside your forest lodge sipping cold beer or drinking hot soup, a myriad lights glisten in the darkness. It is the eyes of a herd of cheetal looking in your direction.
BANDHAVGARH NATIONAL PARK It was at Bandhavgarh, almost contiguous with Kanha, that the famous white tigers of Rewa were discovered. Today the progeny of the first family of white tigers can be seen in zoos across the world. Bandhavgarh has no more white tigers but it does have the yellow striped royal Bengal tiger in abundance. The park has been extended from 105 sq kms to 437 sq kms a few years ago.
Set amidst the Vindhyan ranges, half the park has fine stands of sal. Mixed forests are found in the higher reaches of the hills. The main viewing area is in the core of the park. An ancient fort, on an 800 metre high precipice, dominates the park. Bandhavgarh’s history goes back 2000 years and the earliest signs of habitation can be seen in the caves excavated from the cliffs to the north of the fort. Brahmi inscriptions found here date back to the 1st century BC. A more recent addition is the hunting lodge of the Royal family of Rewa.
You can traverse the park on elephant back and there are good chances of spotting a tiger. In addition to the various species of deer you may spot a fox or a jackal in the jungles of Bandhavgarh.
While the best time to visit Kanha is March to June, Bandhavgarh is open from November to June. It is closed in July during the monsoons. Both parks are in Central India and have forest lodges as well as private accommodation. The nearest air connection to either park is Jabalpur and from there you have to drive down.
Kaziranga National Park
KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK : Assam, in north-east India, is the land of the mighty one-horned rhino. It can be seen both at Kaziranga National Park and at the adjoining Manas Tiger Reserve. In fact, but for these two pockets, a rhino rejuvenation programme in Dudhwa and a large herd in Nepal, the rhino has disappeared from the Indian sub-continent.
Lying along the mighty Brahmaputra river, the Kaziranga National Park is sprawled across 430 sq kms. The swamps and grasslands with tall thickets of elephant grass and patches of evergreen forest make for ideal rhino habitat. You ride through the open country of Kaziranga on elephant back and a day’s outing is sufficient to see most of the species. The visit at dawn is a memorable experience. As the mist lifts and the rising sun lights up the landscape, herds of barasingha and wild buffalo can be seen in the marshes. Rhinos browse unconcerned as tourists gawk at them and strain their cameras to get the perfect image.
Though large-scale poaching of the rhino for its horn has depleted the population, great efforts are on to save this majestic, though ugly, creature. Since the national park is situated along the highway it is easily accessible an animals can be observed from close quarters.
The grasslands are raptor country and the crested serpent eagle, the Pallas’s fishing eagle and grey headed fishing eagle circle overhead. The swamp partridge, the bar-headed goose, whistling teal, the Bengal florican can also be seen at Kaziranga.
MANAS TIGER RESERVE : Though insurgent tribal groups have taken over Manas, it is a sylvan paradise with the mountains for its backdrop and the sparkling Manas river flowing through the reserve. In fact the river serves as a boundary between India and Bhutan. The vast deciduous forests are so dense that they cut out light. Elephant, rhino, gaur an the tiger can be seen in the grassland. Spread across 2840 sq km, Manas is fascinating tiger country.
But Manas is famous for the golden langur found only in this part of the country. Ther are other primates too, the noisiest being the hoolock gibbon. Though its loud whooping call resounds through the forests it is not easily spotted. Manas is also the home of the red panda which lives in the higher reaches of the forest.
Manas is a very special biosphere for it harbours 20 species of birds and animals that are highly endangered and listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data Book. These include the hispid hare and the pigmy hog. The lush forests shelter a myriad birds including pheasants and the scarlet minivet.
November to April is a good time to visit both Kaziranga and Manas. The closest airport to Kaziranga is Jorhat, about 84 km from Kaziranga. Manas is 186 km from Guwahati, the largest city in Assam. Tourist lodges and forest rest houses in and around both parks are comfortable but rooms should be booked in advance.
PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK : The Western Ghats are the green lungs of the coastal region of India and a national park in this sylvan setting in Kerala, is exquisite. The picturesque lake in the heart of the park, formed by the building of a dam towards the end of the last century, adds to its enchantment. The reservoir of this dam winds through the wooded hills and is a perennial source of water for wildlife. Herds of wild elephants, gaur, sambar and wild pigs wander to the lake-side to quench their thirst and can be observed quite clearly from the launches that cruise through the lake with tourists. March and April are good months to get a marvellous view of the animals because it is hot and dry at this time of the year and the elephants spend a lot of time near the lakes, bathing, swimming and, like little children, dousing each other with trunkfuls of water. The tiger too stalks down for a drink of water but keeps its distance from the herd of elephants.
But the creatures to look out for in this verdant park are the flying lizards and the flying snakes. Orange and yellow winged, the flying lizard can be seen moving from one tree to the other. The flying snake is also brilliantly coloured in yellow and black with a pattern of red rosettes. Monitor lizards can be seen basking in the sun in the rocky outcrops adjoining the lake. King cobras and pythons can be seen quite easily on a trek through the park.
Like in most other parks of India, the leopard, wild dog, barking deer and mouse deer abound in this park.
Four species of primates can be found here -the rare lion tailed macaque, the Nilgiri langur, the common langur and the bonnet macaque. This is also the home of the Nilgiri tahr, though this goat is difficult to sight. The lake attracts a lot of bird life -darters, grey herons and cormorants and the great Malabar hornbill and grey hornbill can be seen winging through the forests.
A summer palace of the former Maharaja of Travancore, overlooking the lake, has been converted into a hotel and is a fine place to stay in. You could, in fact, wake up to the loud call of the hornbill or the melodious notes of the Malabar whistling thrush.
The best time to visit Periyar is October to April. Apart from the forest rest houses there are several private hotels. The nearest railhead is Kottayam, 140 kms from Periyar, and the nearest airport is Madurai in Tamilnadu.
Sariska Tiger Reserve
SARISKA TIGER RESERVE : Barely an hour’s drive from Bharatpur is the 765 sq kms Sariska Tiger Reserve, once the royal reserve of the Alwar rulers. Sariska is a picturesque park with plenty of nilgai and other deer species. It is the home of carnivores like tigers, leopards, hyena, jungle cat and caracal. In the last few years the dhole or wild dog has been sighted in the Park. But it is not easy to spot a tiger in this park.
However, the 6th to 13th century Neelkanth Temples, 32 kms from the park, and the Kankwari fort, inside the reserve, are added attractions. It was at this historic fort that Emperor Aurangzeb is said to have imprisoned his brother, Dara Shikoh. The palace complex, built in 1902, has been converted into a heritage hotel. October to June is a good time to visit this Tiger Reserve.
GIR NATIONAL PARK : The home for 300 Asiatic lions, Gir National Park is in the south west of the Saurashtra peninsula. The rugged terrain of the park, spread across 1400 sq kms, has steep rocky hill sides covered with mixed deciduous forests. Streams run through the deep ravines and teak, flame of the forest and the banyan provide shelter for the magnificent lions in the height of summer when temperatures soar.
The best time to see the lions is at dawn or dusk when they are on the move. In addition to the lion, Gir has over 200 leopards, numerous cheetal, nilgai, chinkara and wild boar. Marsh crocodiles are often seen along the river banks.
Gujarat has three distinct wildlife features -the Nalsarovar Lake and Sanctuary where a large number of water birds can be seen; the saline flats of the Rann of Kachchh, the home of the Indian wild ass, and the spectacular Flamingo Island taken over by these birds during the nesting season.
BANDIPUR AND NAGARHOLE NATIONAL PARKS : In Karnataka, the two attractive wildlife parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole, though separate entities, are part of a larger contiguous wildlife reserve that includes the Madumalai Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu and the Wyanad Reserve in Kerala. Bandipur and Nagarhole are easily accessible from Mysore and the four together form an important conservation area of the Western Ghats called the Nilgiri Biosphere.
The 874 sq kms Bandipur park, which is also a tiger reserve, with its open grasslands and woods, lies to the south of the Kabini river, while Nagarhole, 643 sq kms, lies to the north of the river and has taller trees and denser forests.
A dam on the Kabini and its picturesque reservoir separate the two parks. In this deciduous forest trees reach a height of 30 metres and provide valuable hardwood like teak and rosewood.
Bandipur is one of the finest habitats of the Asian elephant. Large herds, with the babies in the centre of the group, almost walking between the legs of their mothers, can be seen quite easily. The magnificent gaur or Indian bison can also be spotted here quite easily.
At Nagarhole too large groups of gaur, elephant, sambar, cheetal, and occasionally a tiger or leopard, can be spotted. Among other mammals are the muntjac, the tiny mouse deer, wild boar, pangolin, giant squirrel, slender loris, langurs and the macaques. Some 250 species of birds have been listed in the park and these include the Malabar Trogan, the Malabar pied hornbill, the Indian great black woodpecker, the Indian pitta and the green, imperial pigeon.
Mudumalai and Bharatpur Sanctuary
MUDUMALAI SANCTUARY : Mudumalai literally means ‘ancient hills’ and the sanctuary is quite close to Bandipur. In fact, it is the Moyar river that separates the wildlife preserves. The Mysore – Ooty highway cuts through Mudumalai and tourists to Karnataka do not have to make a detour to see this sanctuary. Though just 320 sq kms, it is rich in wildlife -elephant, gaur, deer and primates like the bonnet macaque and the langur. Among the predator animals are the tiger, the leopard and the dhole or wild dogs that hunt in packs. Like its adjoining parks, Mudumalai is rich in bird life. The Annamalai sanctuary, some 80 km south of Mudumalai, has two rare species of primates – the Nilggiri lanur and the lion tailed macaque.
The best time to visit Nagarhole is October to March. Then you can move on to Bandipur which provides for best sighting between March and August. The ideal time to visit Mudumalai is February to June. Nagarhole and Bandipur are accessible by train to Mysore and by air to Bangalore and from there you can take a car. The nearest air link to Mudumalai is Coimbatore.
BHARATPUR BIRD SANCTUARY : No bird watcher to India should miss the Bharatpur Sanctuary, as it is popularly known. It was the Maharaja of Bharatpur who artificially created this 28.73 sq kms wetland by building small dykes and dams and diverting water from an irrigation canal to this low lying area in the nineteenth century. Just 176 kms from Delhi, Bharatpur is today a haven for winged creatures who have chosen the sheltered protection of the park to breed in.
You can ride out in a boat early in the morning and watch the mixed heronries in the half submerged babul tree or peddle around on a hired bicycle to watch the painted storks, spoonbills, egrets, cormorants, white ibis and a multitude of other birds tending to their young ones. There are cycle rickshaws too, to take visitors round the park and the rickshaw-pullers have an amazing fund of information on birds and bird life. With 300 species of birds and thousands of winged creatures there is an unending flurry of wings, for the birds often fly out to neighbouring areas in search of food and return only at night to the shelter of the park.
There are a variety of storks and cranes and the local ‘sarus’ is a splendid creature in his grey and red suit, but a star attraction of the park is the Siberian crane. Their comings and goings are painstakingly recorded and announced to the world. For the last couple of years they have almost stopped coming and concerned ornithologists have got together to save the species and check poaching on its wintering route to India. The forests around the lake harbour some deer, jackals, foxes and hyenas and pythons can be seen sunning themselves at Python Point.
Throughout the year you can see birds at Bharatpur but the migratory birds come in October and fly back in February. The breeding season at Bharatpur is from August to October. In addition to the forest lodges of the State and Central government there are some excellent private hotels near the park.