Hemis National Park, Jammu and Kashmir
Often known as the grey ghost of the Himalayas, the elusive snow leopard is the most sought after on any wildlife enthusiast’s list of animals to see. The tiger (and the lion) may hold pride of place in other Indian forests, but in the Himalayas, the snow leopard is the king, surviving extreme temperatures and traversing the challenging topography of higher reaches of the Himalayas. The leopard’s grey spotted coat helps it blend seamlessly with its snowy environment so spotting one is very difficult. You have to trek for days inside the Hemis National Park for a chance at a glimpse. With this regal predator, the game of hide-and-seek is always on.
Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, Rajasthan
Whether Siberian cranes will ever return to Keoladeo National Park (formerly Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) remains to be seen, but it still tops the list of birding hotspots in India. With sightings of around 400 bird species, the experience at Bharatpur is enriching. Here, in one trip, you can spot a host of avian species, many of them rare. While plenty are endemic, others are summer or winter migrants. Apart from raptors and sarus cranes, many endangered birds including the white-bellied heron have been spotted in Bharatpur and last year, the great bittern, a wading species, was spotted here. For an avid birdwatcher, a walk through Bharatpur is about much more than just spotting rare species, it is about spending time with sights and sounds of the pristine ecosystem.
Wild Ass Wildlife Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
Gujarat is home to two animal species found nowhere else in the world: the Asiatic lion and the Indian wild ass. While the lion gets its share of fame, the equestrian is often under-appreciated. The Indian wild ass is a near threatened sub-species of the Asiatic wild ass and one that resembles a horse more closely than any other ass species. Significantly larger than the donkey, it is swifter too—among the fastest animals in the country, it can gallop at the speed of about 70 kmph. The Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch is your best bet to spot this rare species whose habitat has been threatened by state development projects.
Manas National Park, Assam
Seeing a great Indian hornbill for the first time is not an experience easily forgotten. The large birds with their distinctive curved yellow-white-and-black bill and casque are truly one of nature’s greatest creations. While other species of hornbills, such as the Indian grey, can be seen across India, the majestic great Indian hornbill is near threatened and your best chance of spotting one is in Assam’s Manas National Park. Watching this elegant beast—for it is a beast of a bird—glide over you across the blue sky, is often enough to make you forget your camera and just be humbled by nature’s endless marvels.
Kaziranga National Park, Assam
You are likely to quiver when faced with the Indian rhinoceros, the largest of the world’s rhino species. However, the touch of fear as well as the effort of travelling to Assam, the only region in the country where the rhino is found, is all worth the experience of spotting this rare beast. Once spread across the entire northern part of the Indian subcontinent—from Pakistan to the Indian-Burmese border, including parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan—the habitat of the greater one-horned rhino is now restricted to parts of eastern India and Nepal. In India, the best place to spot these gentle massive animals—an adult can easily weigh up to 2,000 kilograms—is Kaziranga National Park
Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha
Considered the second most deadliest crocodile species, salties can grow up to 20 feet long. This only adds to their power as a predator—they are among Earth’s oldest living ones. Crocodiles have been around for about 200 million years and have evolved to outlive many of their other species, including dinosaurs. The chance to see this magnificent creature with a prehistoric dragon-like gait is greatest within the marshy lands of Bhitarkanika National Park, where naturalists discovered over 60 crocodile nesting sites last year. The waters that run through the mangroves are so full of crocodiles that it is impossible to return without having spotted one.
Eravikulam National Park, Kerala
The Nilgiri Tahr is an endangered species of ibex found only in the Nilgiris and the lower reaches of the Western Ghats. The graceful animal’s nimble movements are a joy to behold as it hops across narrow mountain paths, its peculiar curved horn attracting more attention that it would probably like. Poaching had reduced their numbers to a few hundred but conservation efforts have brought their numbers back to about 2,500. You can see the mountain goat in a few places in south India such as the Eravikulam National Park.
Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh
Its conservation status is Vulnerable, mostly because human encroachment has wiped out most of its habitat, but the Himalayan black bear can still be seen in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. One of the best places to spot it is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), located in Kullu district. The shy bear avoids human contact and primarily feeds at night, making it more difficult to spot. Trekking through the GHNP or staying at one of the park’s camps does have its rewards however, and many people have seen this ferocious looking but reticent animal.
Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh
The red-headed vulture is an impressive raptor to watch as it soars spreading black wings, large enough to embrace a human. The massive scavenger, with a wingspan of over eight feet, is usually found perched on the highest trees, its bald red head tilted and its eyes alert. It is suspected that like most vulture species in India, the numbers of the red headed or Indian black vulture declined due to diclofenac poisoning. Today, only about 1,000 remain in the wild. Your best chance to spot this critically endangered bird is at the national parks of central India, especially Kanha National Park.
Kabini Wildlife Reserve, Karnataka
Over the last year and half, wildlife enthusiasts have been rushing to Kabini, the gateway to Nagarhole National Park, to spot a beauty: a male black panther prowling around the moist deciduous forest. While the black panther might seem more dangerous, even lither than a leopard, it is actually no different. Also called a melanistic leopard, its colour comes from a surplus of melanin due to a specific gene. The pigmentation makes it near impossible to see the animal’s spots and it appears to have an inky black coat that contrasts dramatically with its yellow eyes. Safari-goers in Kabini have routinely spotted the beast last year and chances of it mating and passing on the melanistic gene are also quite high. It is a good time to try your luck at spotting the black panther in Kabini.
Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.