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How to choose a tiger safari in India?

For most people wanting to choose/book a tiger safari in India, this is the first and the most natural question coming to mind. You’ve always been intrigued by this incredible animal, seen countless images on the internet, watched tons of documentaries and are itching to go on a tiger safari yourself. It is thrilling, it is exciting, it is magic, well, if chosen wisely.
While there is no rigid formula set in stone for choosing a tiger safari in India, a great number of factors come into play which would most certainly optimize your safari experience ensuring you go back with beautiful and long-lasting memories.

Having done safaris for a decade now (4500+ safari rounds and counting) here is my detailed analysis. I sincerely hope it helps you make an informed decision.

(There are usually two safaris per day, morning, sunrise to around 11 am and afternoon, 3 or 4 pm to sunset).

We (Beyond Wild) have done close to 7000 safaris over the last decade and here is a detailed month-wise log of all the 13 premier (more visited) tiger safaris. When the data comes from a large period of time, 10 years in this case, the results are more balanced negating local conditions, current sightings trends, weather, etc.

Below numbers are the percentages of safaris with a tiger sighting.

Reserves like Dudhwa, Kabini, Bandipur and Sariska are worth visiting and contain a lot of tigers, but our study does not have sufficient data as of now.

What is a tiger safari?
A tiger safari, in the layman’s language, is the whole process of tracking a free-ranging wild tiger in its natural habitat inside a tiger reserve. This is a carefully monitored, regulated and structured activity in which you are driven by a registered local naturalist and have a forest department guide accompanying you. The mode of transport is an open Maruti Suzuki Gypsy. The tiger tracking is done by the naturalists and guides based on their knowledge of the habitat and tigers and various other signs given by the forest and interpreted by the personnel in charge of the gypsy. It is an intense, thrilling and finally a highly rewarding activity. The joy of seeing a tiger after tracking it in its natural habitat is immense.

What are the seasons?
A tiger safari in India typically happens from October all the way till the end of June (except for a few tiger reserves which open later than October and close before June due to rain and weather patterns).
Largely speaking, October is the post monsoon season when the jungles are lush green with abundant water, November to February are the winter months with cold temperatures and very active tigers while March to June is the hot and dry Indian summer with tigers frequenting water bodies.

What do you do on a tiger safari?
Tiger safaris in India are generally;
Morning safari: Sunrise to around 11/11:30 am.
Afternoon safari: 230/3/330 pm to sunset.
(Start and end timings vary as per the season).
Full day: Sunrise to sunset.

The safari guide and driver join you in your open Maruti Gypsy and instruct you about the rules, regulations, do’s and don’ts and also guide you about the flora, fauna, geography, history, etc.

While seeing a tiger is the primary objective on a tiger safari, they also spend time in educating you about other aspects of the jungle. But, tracking a tiger being an inculcated skill, which requires years and years of practice, hardwork and talent, let us focus on that.
Knowing the lay of the land, locations of pugdundees (jungle byways), water bodies and streams, having an intimate knowledge of each tiger in the tourism zone, its daily habits and preferred habitat are some of the many things that the guide would work on. Knowing what happened during the previous safari with respect to tiger movements is also crucial, as this knowledge is what your safari would be built on.

The naturalist and guide have to be absolutely alert and keep an extremely keen ear to listen to jungle sounds, distress calls given by prey species when they sense a tiger while also looking for fresh pugmarks, scat marks and other signs that may help them track the tiger.
Gut, instinct and luck play a major part in the great art of tracking, but experience definitely helps in developing the former three attributes.
These, and many other minor yet important things have to come together in a complex yet simplified manner for the guide and driver to use their discretion and maximize your chances of seeing the cat.

I hope you do understand how very crucial it is to have a good set of naturalist and guide?
(More on this during a subsequent blog).

After these points which we discuss in detail below, I have made a quick reference chart with all parameters involved in optimizing a tiger safari experience.
Do consider the below factors while consulting your safari specialist asking how to choose a tiger safari in India!

For a layman, how to choose a tiger safari?

A. Accessibility:
No matter how good the tiger reserve is, many safari goers wonder about the nearest big airport / railway station, etc. Ideally, a major airport being not more than 3 hours from the safari gate is a good starting point. India being a massive country and the reserves being big and spread over large tracts of forested lands, they can never be as easily accessible as an amusement park or a general city attraction. This most certainly adds to the charm and the overall beauty of the experience, if you ask me!

B. Availability of good stay options:
Safari goers have varied requirements when it comes to accommodation. India’s tiger reserves have an astounding variety of accommodation options ranging from simple homestays to basic guesthouses to mid-range safari resorts to slightly upper-level tented camps to luxurious lodges to ultra-luxurious glamping and resort options. But, not all reserves might have all options. It is essential you set your expectations on a piece of paper and convey them to your safari specialist before they make your safari itinerary. For example, if you are looking at a high-end Africa-style camping option, then we have not more than 3 or 4 tiger reserves which can provide you with the same. As a general observation, mid-range, no-frills but very self-sufficient and decently priced lodges and resorts are available in most reserves.

C. Quality of forest and its biodiversity:
Whole this is an extremely subjective point and different experts might/would have dissimilar views, I am basing my observations on the generic understanding of all forests and what i have understood over the years. For me, a tiger reserve’s forest quality is determined by the biodiversity in terms of fauna and flora, their adequate numbers so as to sustain the ecosystem, age and girth of trees, their seasonal patterns (deciduous / evergreen) and also the sheer aesthetic beauty of the park. Having a variety of habitats like dense patches of forests, grasslands, riverine ecosystem, etc does make the reserve prettier and visually more pleasing. Generally speaking, reserves like Kanha, Corbett and Kaziranga have been many safari experts’ preferred forests when it comes to biodiversity and the beauty of the parks. My views are the same.

D. Infrastructure of the park:
A well laid-out network of jungle roads, arterial pathways and forest byways inside a tiger reserve, aiding in tiger tracking is essential to increasing our chances of spotting tigers. Regular maintenance of and building of roads, canals, bridges is crucial. Timely building of dams and bunds, ensuring water bodies have sufficient water even in the harsh summer months, fireline generation and maintenance, clearing of old grass to make way for new are the hallmarks of a well functioning forest department, which directly determines the park’s infrastructure.
Ensuring adequate number of safari gates and safari zones (to avoid overcrowding of gypsies), availability of pit stops for having breakfast and toilet breaks are essential in my view.

On a winter’s morning safari, unless and until there are decent toilets available inside the park, it is next to impossible to enjoy the safari (VERY IMPORTANT POINT)!
And unlike in the African reserves, in India you cannot just get down from the vehicle and find a tree! ;)

E. Quality of guides, drivers and naturalists:
While our trained and expert wildlife mentor cum naturalist will travel with you to whichever park is chosen, his/her rapport and eventual team work with the local guides and drivers can make or break your safari. Good, experienced, knowledgeable guides and drivers who track tigers and enter the forest twice a day with absolute passion and zest for giving you the best possible experience is for me, the single biggest factor in choosing the safari experience. Parks like Kanha, Pench, Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Tadoba which have been up and running for decades naturally have the most experienced and passionate guides! It also boils down to our understanding of your requirements and choosing the best guides and drivers for you. Trust me, they will give their 200% in ensuring your dream holiday is something to be cherished forever! A BIG FACTOR for me, this!

F. Probability of spotting tigers (and various factors affecting it): 
Many first time safari goers, and quite understandably so, refer to the traditional travel guides, e-books, European travel forums (which might be as dated as 2008 but who reads the fine print anyway?!) and social media. Unfortunately, many of these sources are biased, lack a holistic knowledge of all the parks and tiger activities and are far removed from the current ground realities. Most European travel forums would show you Ranthambhore and at times Bandhavgarh as the ‘Only good tiger parks in India’, which is far from the truth. No doubt, these parks are fabulous and are evergreen favourites, but there are many more! It is always good to hear from the locals’ mouth!

Another major factor is the knowledge of the fact that tiger sightings is not a black and white science and every day, every week, every season, trends and sighting patterns in our reserves change. These are highly dynamic and ever-changing factors regulating the tiger sightings and it is our genuine endeavour to average out all factors and seasonal trends thus providing you with the most generic and truthful document on ‘how to choose a tiger safari in India’!

1. Seasonal trends: Tiger sightings in a park can change from season to season (a season for us is the tiger safari period from October to June). Every year, the trends are altered and thus the sightings differ.

2. Rainfall: Availability of water (which is the result of the Indian monsoon from June to September end) plays a major factor in affecting tiger sightings. Generally speaking, more the water available in the tiger reserves, lesser are the chances of spotting tigers. But, at times, exception proves the rule.

During the 2019-20 season, Pench Turia zone had incredible monsoon rains and thus the Pench river was in spate preventing the tigers from crossing from the tourism zone into the non tourism zone beyond the river. Thus, a lot of tigers were in the tourism zone, due to excessive water and this in turn proved very good for sightings.

It is always a good practice to ask your safari specialist about these rainfall related sighting trends in the particular park for that season.

3. Bold tigers in the tourism zone: Each tiger reserve has an area demarcated for tourism. This can be anywhere from 50 sq kms to 300 sq kms and can have a lot of tigers. The tourism zone in Kanha for instance has had sightings of at least 30 adult tigers over this season, 2019-20. Tigers, by their innate nature, are shy and reclusive. They would, preferably, avoid any human intervention or disturbance. But, over the years, some tigers, in the tourism zones, have gotten used to gypsies and know they mean no harm. This development of trust and respect (an essential part of responsible and sustainable wildlife tourism) makes some tigers bold and unafraid of safari gypsies. You guessed it, haven’t you! Having a sizable population of bold tigers in the tourism zone makes sightings comparatively easy.

4. Heat and cold: Before delving into the technicalities of this, it has been my observation that tigers are more active during extreme cold (peak winter mornings) and excessive heat (as they move to and from water bodies). It is wise to time your safari accordingly. As a rule, tigers do not prefer overcast and damp conditions. They are animals of the cold and heat.

5. Female tigers with cubs: Tigresses rearing a litter (of on an average 3 to 4 cubs) have to be constantly on the go! Hunting on an almost daily basis, moving the cubs’ location/hiding spots when they are young, showing them the territory and taking them along on hunts and patrols when they start maturing ensure that the female is conspicuous and always on the move. It is, quite literally speaking, easier to track a tiger which is on the move, due to a lot of factors but more so because of the alarm calls and the fresh pugmarks enabling us to track the tiger,

6. Good guides and drivers: This is crucial and which we have already discussed above.

7. Safari zones: Most of our national parks have a number of safari zones, with different tigers. Some are bold, some shy. Some are nursing cubs, some are without any. Some have a lot of safari roads in their territory, some don’t. Further, factors like lack of or availability of waterholes, density of the vegetation, topography and evenness of the land, presence of grasslands and open patches of forest in the zone all come together in helping us decide which zones to book. A reserve like Kanha, for instance, has 4 core safari zones - Sarhi, Kisli, Kanha and Mukki. While we completely understand that sightings would differ safari to safari, if we look at an average for the week/month/season, it is quite easy for us to understand which zones to book (usually 4 months in advance when the good zones in the famous reserves get fully booked) and thus to optimize the chances of spotting a tiger. Kanha and Mukki zones have at least 1 very bold and regularly seen tigress with young cubs this season (2019-20) and naturally sightings there would be brilliant.

This is similar to stock market trading, optimizing your chances of high returns after carefully studying the market (forest).

8. When to book?
Thanks to the rules and guidelines laid out by the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), only a specific number of vehicles (gypsies) are allowed to enter the tiger reserve per round. This is keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the respective tiger reserve. An online permit is issued for each vehicle entry, per round. Thus, the permits for the popular tiger reserves (by effect the ones with the best sightings) get full very, very fast!

It is, therefore, imperative that you book at least 125-130 days in advance (as bookings for most reserves open 120 days in advance, while those for Ranthambhore open 365 days in advance so keep at least 6 months handy for Ranthambhore in order to get the best zones).

G. How to select zones?
Refer to F. 7.

H. When to book your safari holiday?
Refer to F. 8.

These are an important set of guidelines and protocol while choosing your safari holiday in India to spot tigers. Abiding to and making use of these (unwritten) ground rules shall most certainly improve your safari experience!

We sincerely hope to provide you with an experience that is worthy of bedtime stories to be lovingly told to your grand-children! ;)

This is, in brief, how to choose a tiger safari in India!

Do write to us at info@beyondwild.in to start conversing with our safari specialist and tailor make your dream tiger safari.

Love and light from the jungles,
Team Beyond Wild.

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