There is no formula for sighting a tiger in the wild. But there is a philosophical outlook one can have when going on safari in an Indian forest: to let things take their course. If you expect to see a tiger on your very first ride, you have started on the wrong foot. Instead, trust your guides (too many people unleash the disappointment of not seeing a tiger on them) and delight in their stories. It’s best to let their experience lead you as they interpret alarm calls, pug marks, and other subtle signs of the jungle.
We began our recent three-day visit to Bandhavgarh National Park with a safari in the Magdhi zone. The mahua trees were full of fruit, attracting birds and monkeys. The amaltas trees were a riot of yellow, and bauhinia creepers bloomed in gaudy profusion, draped over tall trees. Chitals and langurs foraged in the shade of gigantic banyans. It was a beautiful morning, one that got even better when we saw a female tiger and three cubs with their kill. We watched them greedily, taking a break only for our own quick breakfast, and returned to photograph the frolicking cubs and their watchful mother. We had exceptionally good luck throughout the trip, spotting six tigers in all.
One of the most picturesque national parks in India, Bandhavgarh has a mixed deciduous forest dominated by a hill, which according to legend was given to Lakshman by Rama. In 1968, the government took over this former hunting ground of the maharajas of Rewa. It has four zones. The oldest is Tala, where the vast Chakradhar meadow gives way to the rocky hill topped by Bandhavgarh Fort. Halfway uphill, in a grove at the source of the Charanganga River, lies an enormous statue of Vishnu in a reclining pose. There is also a cluster of man-made caves, some of them pre-historic.
Magdhi, Khitauli, and Panpatha zones were added later to expand the core area. Magdhi has surpassed the “star” zone of Tala for tiger sightings recently. We were told Tala’s recent dearth of tigers may be due to territorial fights between a surging population of females with cubs, and young males. Khitauli is great for spotting leopards and sloth bears, while Panpatha offers dhole (wild dog) sightings.
Bandhavgarh has among the highest tiger densities of any Indian national park, making sightings relatively more likely. Other animals include the leopard, sloth bear, wild dog, spotted deer, and sambar. The gaur population had dwindled, but herds were reintroduced from Kanha National Park and have made a comeback.
One morning in Tala, for 20 minutes we watched a sloth bear scratching at an anthill and delicately eating its residents. Smaller mammals, like the common mongoose, jackal, jungle cat, and palm civet are also visible. Civets only appear at dusk and dawn, so are harder to find, but we did spot one whizzing up a tree one evening.
The forests are also a birdwatcher’s delight. Keep an eye out for the spectacular black-and-white Malabar pied hornbill, with its enormous casque and raucous call.
Tala and Magdhi zones are open from 1 October to 15 June, while Khitauli and Panpatha are open year-round. Book safaris online (forest.mponline.gov.in) well in advance (as soon as they open is best), or through your resort, which eliminates much of the hassle but adds to the cost.
There are two safaris every day, at 6.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. in winter (Oct-Jan), and 6 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. in summer (Feb-Jun). Mornings are pleasantly refreshing as you watch the forest come alive with the rays of the sun. Evenings offer great sightings, especially at dusk. All Madhya Pradesh national parks are closed on Wednesday afternoons.
All safaris are in government-registered Gypsy vehicles, which carry up to six people who must be accompanied by a forest department-approved guide. The entry fee is ₹2,640 per Gypsy at Tala, ₹1,320 at the other zones (foreigners pay a surcharge per head).
Bandhavgarh’s many lodges (most situated around Tala gate), have rooms to suit every budget. The better-run places have good naturalists and all lodges offer a meal plan. It is best to dine in-house but there are some tea shops and cafés around Tala village.
Mahua Kothi is the chic, upscale Taj Safaris resort. Its price and amenities stand apart, but the real value additions are the well-trained naturalists, superb cuisine and natural ambience. (www.tajsafaris.com; ₹30,000 to ₹48,500 per person per night sharing, depending on season; includes all meals, some alcoholic drinks, and two safaris daily.)
King’s Lodge is an old, reliable favourite. The individual cottages in minimal, ethnic style are far apart and afford a high degree of privacy. Bathrooms are well-equipped, the linens crisp, and service prompt. The food is of a high standard, and there is a small spa and pool (www.kingslodge.in; doubles ₹16,000, including all meals).
Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge is a good mid-level option close to the Tala Gate. Rooms are decently sized and newer structures have an urban feel, while the older cottages have mud-coated walls and tribal paintings. Food is the average Indian/multi-cuisine mix (www.bandhavgarhjunglelodge.com; 3-day package for two ₹17,250, including meals).
White Tiger Forest Lodge is an MPTDC property, which enjoys the best location, just half a kilometre from Tala gate. It is run better than most government lodges and has been recently renovated to comfortably fulfil the expectations of a good budget accommodation (www.mptourism.com; doubles ₹5,390 for room only).
Skay’s Camp is an offbeat eco-lodge within Tala village, run by experienced naturalist Satyendra Tiwari, and his artist wife, Kay Hassall Tiwari. It has seven double rooms with the feel of a family home. The couple’s knowledge of Bandhavgarh’s flora and fauna, and Kay’s artistic background, add considerably to the experience (skayscamp.in; doubles ₹5,500 for room only).
The days get warm in March and very hot from April to June. Early mornings are chilly from October onwards, and December and January are cold and misty. March and June are the best seasons for sightings as the tall grasses wither away, and water sources inside the jungle dry up, drawing the animals out. Winter is the best time for bird-watching as the migrant visitors arrive in early December and leave in March.
Two convenient airports are Jabalpur (165 km/4 hr) and Khajuraho (260 km/6 hr). Most resorts can arrange a pickup for a fee. The closest rail heads are Jabalpur, Katni (100 km/2.5 hr), and Umaria (35 km/45 min). Buses and private taxis ply between each of these towns and Tala Gate.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Seeking the Stripe”.
This story has been updated in November 2017.