Like most commodities in India, holidays for families are shopped for on the basis of one overarching condition—that they should be a family package. Some trust the time-tested promises of old cities such as Rishikesh, or the multifaceted timelessness of a colourful Jaipur or a stunning Srinagar. Hill stations, with their easy charms of crowded mall roads, cheap coffee and pastry and brief distractions from the summer heat have stayed no-brainers for younger families.
Holidays to see wildlife and experience nature, however, are rarely the subject of family vacays in the Indian context, whose traditional economy needs them to be all-encompassing. But with conservation slowly coming to the forefront with the explosion of social media and responsible travel quickly gaining ground as a credible industry, younger families holidaying in National Parks, wetland explorations for birders sharing bloodlines, and parents bonding with children in the midst of captivating worlds inhabited by critters—can be both collectively engaging and educational. We look at 10 left-field, mindful—and bang-for-the-buck—trips across India for whom love for wildlife runs in the family.
Also Read | How to Do Wildlife Tourism Right
If you’ve only ever desired to chase snow leopards in India’s cold desert—wait till you catch sight of another elusive, furry omnivore of these parts: the Himalayan brown bear. Despite the bad rap they get for mismanaged human-wildlife conflict, bears can be gentle, protective, social and empathetic, says Roots Ladakh founder and conservator Muzammil Hussain. For families visiting Ladakh during the warmer period of April-October, tacking a brown bear trail to your itinerary could be a great idea.
Mantra Himalaya, another mindful outfit, organises Wild Changthang, “an all-encompassing nature trip” where travellers can come face to face with species that are found only in the Changthang plateau, including Tibetan gazelle, wild ass, marmots and pikas, and the splendorous black-necked cranes of these parts. The trip also includes flora tours and stargazing. For tariff, call +919910346433 (Mantra Himalaya) and +919419289275 (Roots Ladakh).
Club the good old Nainital-and-Bhimtal getaway with a visit to the unexplored Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary. This wildlife sanctuary, established in 2015, is home to tigers, elephants, leopards, jungle cats, sloth bears, and flying foxes. But unlike its more illustrious counterparts, sightings are not to be had at one’s beck and call, and is perfect for a day or two of camping in the pristine Terai Arc landscape. Top it off with a visit to the recently opened Moss Garden in Khurpatal, which was set up to preserve over 30 moss species (including two on the IUCN Red List) and bryophytes and spread awareness about the organism’s centrality in the regional ecology.
Also Read | Beyond the Big Five of India
To the average holidaymaker with a casual interest in wildlife, Assam still equals Kaziranga. But those that mean business can think about a five-hour road journey from Guwahati to Jorhat. The beels of Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (less than an hour’s drive from Guwahati) swarm with pochards, geese, storks, shelducks, and if you’re visiting between November and May, hop onto a boat safari to sight river dolphins. Pobitora teems with several kinds of civet cats and monitor lizards, but it’s the rhinos that beckon most. Stay the night at one of the eco camps before heading to Jorhat, where the home of India’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon—Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary—offers an engaging tryst with endemic flora and fauna. The thickly forested environs also shelter loris, macaques and langurs, and hundreds of tree species. Stay options include the forest rest house or homestays in Jorhat (20 km away).
Families frequently travelling to see wildlife will find Namdapha a new challenge that grows on travellers, with its near-unnavigable trails. The forest harbours a mind-boggling diversity of wildlife, from rarely spotted avians such as snowy-throated babblers, scimitar babblers, and several kinds of hornbills, to clouded and snow leopards, tigers, and elephants. Namdapha is also perfect for butterfly enthusiasts, with a great variety of these winged wonders present here, including red caliph, koh-i-noor, fluffy tit and wizard. The unbelievably cheap forest rest house can be booked by making a call (0387-222249) or sharing your details in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It takes only a couple of hours to drive to the evocative bets of the Wild Ass Sanctuary—the only home of the regal Indian wild ass (khur)—from Ahmedabad. Part of the parched grasslands of the Little Rann, the sanctuary covers 5,000 square kilometres and also hosts blackbuck, chinkara, desert fox, Indian wolf, and close to 30 reptile species. To see flamingos breeding in the wild, plan your trip between October and March. Even otherwise, avid birders can expect to spot pelicans, kites, storks and other avians at Bajana Creek.
The outcrops of Jawai, Rajasthan’s up-and-coming leopard country located halfway between Jodhpur and Udaipur, merit at least a couple of days of exploration. The cooled-lava hillocks hide and (systematically reveal) close to 60 leopards in their crevices, and lodges and safaris mushrooming fast make it easy for even those just passing by to get sightings of the big cat. The adrenaline rush doesn’t stop there—throw into the mix sunset drives past farmlands, rock-bashing in trusty Gypsies, thrilling early morning safaris, and you have a heady smorgasbord of adventure activities. Even for those with calmer inclinations, patchy forests and shimmering water bodies offer up tonnes of bird sightings.
Also Read | Birding in Thar’s Desert National Park
Darjeeling’s Singalila National Park offers charms aplenty, and for smaller families, a trip to its rhododendron-streaked landscape could be an experience of a lifetime. Travelling from Manebhanjan, it’s fun to jump aboard refurbished Landys, as one enters Singalila. The red panda—a part-raccoon and part-bear cub-like species—is an endangered animal with the highest legal protection, and is extremely elusive. Tour operators, aided by local trackers, organise trails where groups have the opportunity of spotting these beings in their natural habitat and understand the importance of its conservation. Singalila is a great hub for birders as well, with laughing thrushes, red crossbills, flycatchers and sunbirds commonly sighted. Contact Habre’s Nest.
Located in close proximity of Pamban island and Dhanushkodi, Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park in Tamil Nadu is a must for those intrigued endlessly by marine life. The National Park is considered the first marine biosphere reserve in Southeast Asia, with its 21 islands harbouring over 3,600 species of life across three distinct coastal ecosystems. Softly wading over the water on glass-bottomed boats is an enchanting way of observing corals and other animals such as sea cucumbers, barracuda, seahorses, with opportunities for birding and spotting dolphins and dugongs also available. The Interpretation Centre/Museum also has a children’s park.
Fancy just walking and walking in nature with your crew in tow, stopping to gawk at Nanda Devi and Trishul, enjoying ham sandwiches and coffee for breakfast picnics at decrepit watchtowers, and identifying woodpeckers, jays and barking deer by their calls? The countless trails crisscrossing through the thick forest give Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary (Uttarakhand) the impression of being much larger and remote than it is, and clearings and vantage points offer great opportunities to lay your mats for a quick round of fresh buransh crush. There are several stay options inside the sanctuary, from luxurious cottages at Mary Budden Estate, to the humble but cosy Forest Rest House and KMVN’s Nanda Devi Tourist Rest House.
The thick forests of the Andamans hide an unbelievable amount of endemic flora and fauna, and nature trails spread over multiple days can be both educational and awe-inspiring. BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) conducts the week-long Endemics of Andamans tour across South Andaman and Little Andaman Island, taking travellers to see species such as Andaman serpent eagles, Andaman crakes, Andaman teals, Pied Imperial Pigeon and Black Baza. Sign up for the trip here.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.