I become rather saddened when beginning to discuss itinerary options with clients when they say they are not interested in including wildlife in their trip to the subcontinent as they have ‘done that’ in Africa! Wildlife viewing in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka offers a very different experience than an African safari, but can be equally rewarding. Certainly you are unlikely to see large herds of animals roaming the savannah but the jungles and grasslands of the subcontinent have their own beauty and the excitement of hearing an alarm call and waiting in anticipation is a thrilling experience. Birding is excellent, indeed even in the cities you will have the opportunity to see a wide range of avian fauna. In my view a visit to one of the subcontinent’s many National Parks helps complete the rural experience. The forests are very much part of the community, and even in designated parks the villagers will be allowed into the buffer zones to collect fruit & fodder and even in some areas graze their livestock. Human/animal conflict is a growing issue in all parts of the world, but the co-existence of humans and wildlife should not be underestimated.
Most of the lodges we recommend that are located near a National Parks don’t just offer a wildlife experience but are part of a wider cultural exploration of the rural subcontinent. It is inevitable that for visitors to India & Nepal a tiger sighting will be on everyone’s wish list, and for those going to Sri Lanka a leopard sighting but it would be a shame to only focus on these key species when the parks have so much more to offer.
When visiting a national park do remember sightings are not guaranteed (especially of the elusive tiger & leopard), the more visits you arrange to the park the more likely you are to have good viewings. A minimum of 3 nights would be recommended so you not only have time for several park visits but can also experience the other activities on offer. Be prepared to not only focus on the larger mammals and carnivores, an appreciation of the smaller flora and fauna will greatly add to the wilderness experience. Birdwatching throughout the subcontinent is excellent.
We have only mentioned the larger National Parks & Tiger Reserves, those which have good accommodation in easy reach. There are many smaller reserves and parks throughout the subcontinent which can be linked with any journey, so do ask for further ideas.
Safaris need to be booked as far in advance as possible as spaces are limited. Each park has a slightly different booking system so do discuss with us further. Park visits are non-refundable once booked. Most parks offer 2 safaris a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with the morning safari being for a longer duration. Some lodges will provide a picnic breakfast to eat in the park. Full & half day safaris for the fuller committed can also be arranged in many parks.
RANTHAMBHORE NATIONAL PARK
Ranthambhore is perhaps one of the best-known parks in India due to its proximity. Located between Agra and Jaipur it fits well with the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ tour. This does mean it is one of the most popular parks but it is also one of the best organised as far as bookings are concerned and does offer a realistic chance of good tiger sightings. Safaris are either by jeep or canter (a 16-seater vehicle). The Ranthambhore Fort is on the edge of the park and the park itself is dotted with picturesque buildings adding to its unique scenic beauty.
KEOLADEO GHANA NATIONAL PARK- also known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary
An excellent park for viewing migratory and resident birds. Being within easy reach of Delhi and Agra it can be included in the Golden Triangle Tour or makes a good week-end escape from Delhi. As with all wildlife viewing the park is best visited in the early morning, or later in the day, so a night in Bharatpur is recommended, although accommodation options are quite limited. One of the main advantages of the park is that vehicles are not allowed in the core area and you explore either on bicycle rickshaws, bikes or on foot. Most of the rickshaw drivers have excellent birding knowledge.
JAWAI & BERA
Not officially a designated national park this area of Rajasthan should still be of great interest to wildlife enthusiasts and travellers alike. The ancient granite rocks and boulders of Jawai are the perfect habitat for leopards, and no where else shows the co-existence of man and animal better than here where the Rabari herdsmen and the leopards successfully live in harmony. Sightings of leopards are usually excellent and although the Jawai Conservation Reserve was created in 2013 to promote ecotourism and safeguard the flora and fauna the restrictions are rather less than in a designated national park thus allowing for a more interactive experience. The Jawai Bandh creates a large reservoir which is excellent for viewing migratory & resident birds. The chance of this region being over exploited due to the lack of regulations is high; both the properties we recommend are operated by committed conservationists who work closely with the local communities to preserve the uniqueness of this amazing corner of India.
CORBETT NATIONAL PARK
The Corbett National Park is north of Delhi and links well with an itinerary including time in the lower Himalayas. Although Corbett has a healthy tiger population the sightings are not so numerous but one of the attractions of this park is chance to spot elephants in the wild.
Madhya Pradesh has a wide range of National Parks and these are generally considered some of the best options for wildlife viewing in India with a rich biodiversity zone. You could consider combining several parks in an itinerary or include one park as part of a more general tour of Madhya Pradesh.
When planning an itinerary please note all National Parks & Sanctuaries in MP are closed on Wednesday afternoons, but there are plenty of other activities on offer.
BANDHAVGARH NATIONAL PARK
Bandhavgarh National Park has always been justifiably famous for its frequent tiger sightings, although in recent years these have not been quite so numerous the chances are still decent and the park has a good representation of other flora and fauna.
KANHA TIGER RESERVE
Alongside Bandhavgarh, Kanha has always had a reliable reputation for tiger sightings amongst the Madhya Pradesh parks. Consistently a popular destination with those wanting a good jungle experience, Kanha is a large park with a well-controlled tourist system which means you are unlikely to feel too crowded and can spend time lingering at one of the many waterholes. The rare barasingha (swamp deer) is unique to this MP park.
PANNA TIGER RESERVE
One of the main benefits of the Panna Tiger Reserve is the relatively small number of visitors and the fact that currently jeeps are not restricted to any particular route. Earlier this century the number of tigers in the park was dramatically reduced due to poaching but thanks to a successful reintroduction programme the numbers are now greatly improved and tiger sightings are on the increase. In addition you can have good leopard and bear sightings. It is one of Madhya Pradesh’s most dramatically scenic parks.
PENCH NATIONAL PARK
Pench is an attractive park offering a range of wildlife habitat with good forest, open grasslands and many water holes. There is an established corridor linking Pench with Kanha National Park, allowing for quite a bit of animal movement. In addition to the chance of seeing tiger and leopard, gaur (Indian bison) are frequently spotted.
SATPURA NATIONAL PARK
This large national park was created by combining Satpura with Pachmari & Bori sanctuaries, creating a mixed environment compromising of large teak & sal forests & grassland and it has a rugged and undulating terrain, which ranges from 300 – 1,352 metres above sea level. Although tiger sightings are not frequent the park has a wide variety of wildlife and leopard and bear sightings are possible. In an effort to reduce the pressure on the core area this park offers a number of jungle activities, not only jeep safaris. Walking safaris are an excellent way to learn about the smaller flora and fauna and the boat trips & canoe trips on the Denwa River are a magical way to experience the wilderness. Dusk jeep safaris can also be arranged.
TADOBA ANDHARI TIGER RESERVE
Previously Tadoba was not particularly known as a tourist destination but in recent years the number of tiger sightings has greatly increased and with it the popularity of the park. As with all parks the tiger is not the only attraction and there are many other resident species in the area, notably wild dog and bear. The park is rich in water sources which enables good wildlife viewing in the hotter months and an excellent variety of birdlife.
Assam, one of the North Eastern states of India, offers some exciting and different wildlife opportunities. It is one of the world’s richest biodiversity zones and is home to several endangered species. Assam has the world’s highest density of the endangered Indian one-horned rhinoceros. A visit to this region links well with off-the-beaten track trips to other North East states, leading to a varied cultural and/or activity-based journey.
KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK
Whilst never wishing to compare the African wildlife experience with India I have to say Kaziranga National Park does come close to offering a similar experience and has even been referred to as the Serengeti of India! On the large grasslands along the edge of the Brahmaputra river it is possible to see groups of different species grazing together. Indian one-horned rhinoceros can be viewed in the company of wild water buffalo, sambar deer, hog deer, swamp deer, elephant and wild boar. Designated a World Heritage site Kaziranga is a large, varied park with excellent birdlife. The Hoolock gibbon is another resident that can be seen in the area.
MANAS NATIONAL PARK
Located in Western Assam in the Himalayan foothills this park is on the border of Bhutan and indeed is contiguous with the Royal Bhutan Manas National Park. The Manas river marks the international boundary. The park is known for several rare and endangered endemic species, namely the hispid hare, golden langur & the pygmy hog and is home to the largest population of the Bengal florican, although sightings are difficult.
NAMERI NATIONAL PARK
This National Park is in the foothills of the Eastern Himalaya on the border of Arunachal Pradesh. It offers excellent birdwatching with 300 resident species. The Jia-Bhoreli river runs through the park and raft trips on the water are a perfect way to enjoy the stunning scenery and spot water birds. Birding walks in the park can also be arranged.
HOOLLONGAPAR GIBBON SANCTUARY
Close to Jorhat, in the tea area of Assam, this sanctuary offers the chance to walk in a protected evergreen forest and search for the hoolock gibbon (India’s only member of the ape family), capped langur, stump-tailed macaque, rhesus macaque and the giant squirrel. No vehicles are allowed inside the park allowing for unrestricted walking.
Gujarat tends to be known in wildlife circles as the only place where you can still see the Asiatic Lion in the wild. However there are many other interesting wildlife opportunities in this mainly desert Western state of India. As the sanctuaries are geographically spread out they all link well with more main stream tours to Gujarat and can be easily included in a cultural and textile orientated journey offering a holistic experience.
GIR NATIONAL PARK
This national park is the last stronghold of the critically endangered Asiatic lion, a visit to the park also gives the opportunity to see chausinga (four-horned antelope), leopard, hyena, chital & sambar. With all parks a minimum of 3 nights is recommended, and although the population density of the lion in the park is good sightings are not guaranteed and 3-4 safaris will increase your chance of seeing them. An added attraction of this park in many mango orchards in the area!
BLACKBUCK SANCTUARY, VELAVADAR
The grassland and scrub in this National Park provides an optimum habitat for herds of blackbuck & nilgai, two of India’s antelope species. Increasingly there are day light sightings of the endangered Indian wolf and the striped hyena, making it one of the best places in India to view these normally nocturnal predators.
WILD ASS SANCTUARY, LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH
The salt flats and grasslands of the Little Rann of Kutch, are one of the last refuges of the endangered Indian wild ass, with a healthy population the chances of seeing these is high. Desert fox, wild boar and nilgai may also be spotted, but are rather less guaranteed. The area is also home to many birds, including migratory demoiselle cranes, pelicans and greater & lesser flamingos. After the monsoon floods recede the resulting water bodies attract a wide range of waders and water birds making it a haven for bird lovers. There are many pastoral communities in the area including Rabaris, Jats, Kharapat Rabaris & Bharvads and visits to their villages is an additional attraction of travel to this area. There is also an opportunity to visit a number of artisans and see their work which will include tangalia weaving, embroidery & bead work.
There are several National Parks in Sri Lanka. As these are spread throughout the island it is easy to include a stay in one of the parks during a more general tour of the country, thus adding an additional element to your journey. There are some delightful accommodation options next to the main parks, ranging from high end camps to lodges offering a totally immersive jungle experience.
YALA NATIONAL PARK
If viewing a diverse array of wildlife is at the top of your agenda then Yala national park is the place to visit. The vegetation consists of scrub jungle, lakes, and brackish lagoons to riverine habitat. It has to be said that Yala is probably the most visited national park in Sri Lanka, perhaps not surprising when it is considered to be one of the best places in the world to see leopard in the wild. The park is divided into 5 Blocks and it is Block 1 which covers over 14,000 hectares that is most frequently traversed, however it is possible to visit the other blocks and although the chance of seeing leopard may be a bit less the lack of other jeeps will definitely be beneficial. That said as block 1 covers such a large area there is still the potential to get away from the main track so you can appreciate the diversity of wildlife that Yala has to offer. On a two night stay it should be possible to spot and identify over a 100 species of birds. The density of mugger crocodiles within Yala is also quite an underrated feature of the park. Yala is also one of the better places in Sri Lanka to come across tusked elephants. At the end of the North-east Monsoon (February), the park is also very good for butterflies. There are 2 main rivers flowing through Yala, the Manik Ganga and the Kumbukkan Oya and these two rivers serve as the lifeline to the park during the drier months.
Located in the south of the island Yala conveniently links a stay in the hill country with a beach stay.
BUNDALA NATIONAL PARK
On the southern coast, is a bird lover’s paradise. It is estimated that over 197 species of birds gather within its environs. Large flocks of greater flamingos which often include over 1,000 birds are quite prominent among the avifauna. These feathered visitors come to the park from India. Cormorants, Asian openbills, painted storks, and lesser whistling ducks are commonly spotted in Bundala as well. In addition, species like the lesser adjutant, Eurasian coot, and black-necked stork can also be seen here with ease. You may also come across elephants, common langurs, leopards, jackals, fishing cats, porcupines, and mugger crocodiles. Being less than an hour’s drive from Yala, Bundala is best be combined with a stay here, or on route to Galle or a south coast property.
WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK
Wilpattu, in the north east of the island, is Sri Lanka’s largest national park with an area of 130,000 hectare. It is also the oldest national park which has been reopened after several years of closure due to the armed conflict in the country. A unique feature of Wilpattu national park is that the entire park is dotted with large sand rimmed natural lakes known as “Villus”. The Villus collects rain water and tends to attract wildlife especially during the times of drought. The main draw in Wilpattu is the leopard and sloth bear. It is also one of the better parks to see barking deer. Wilpattu is bounded to the north and south by 2 main rivers, the Modara Gamaru towards the north of the park and the Kala Oya to the south of the park Wilpattu is not only famous for its wildlife but also for its archaeological and historical importance. About 500 years before the birth of Christ it is believed that Prince Vijaya from India and his followers landed in a place called Thambapanni in the North West corner of Wilpattu and formed the Sinhalese kingdom. There are still many archaeological ruins and stories to be told about this and many other fascinating historical events that took place within the borders of what we now call Wilpattu. A visit to Wilpattu fits well with a trip to the Jaffna peninsular or Kalpatya. There is limited accommodation at Wilpattu but it is only an hour from Anuradhapura.
GAL OYA NATIONAL PARK
For those looking for a pure wilderness experience than Gal Oya National Park, a remote barely-visited game reserve to the east of the country, really offers the best option. The Gal Oya Lodge is the only property in the area, and their back to nature feel is enhanced by a collection of local experiences led by experienced naturalists. There are excellent opportunities for walks in the surrounding countryside, visiting neighboured Veddha settlements, lost-in-time villages and bushland, with great birding options. This is the only place in Sri Lanka to safari by boat and potentially sight swimming elephants, trunks aloft, in the island's largest lake. Jeep rides into the park are also arranged but it should be said that as the park is infrequently visited the wildlife is still quite shy and sightings can be limited.
MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK
Minneriya National Park is conveniently located within the area known as the Cultural Triangle so a visit can easily be combined with a visit to this area. Although a very popular park it is always possible to remove yourself from the crowd and explore further afield. The national park protects the catchment of the Minneriya Tank which was built back in the third century AD by King Mahasen. The most remarkable natural event occurs here during the dry season. A large herd of wild elephants congregate by the banks of the reservoir every year to create The Gathering, an astounding natural event that has garnered famed around the world. Some records of the elephants that gather during the event include numbers as high as 700. The elephants can be seen socializing and bathing while enjoying the company of each other. This mesmerising event occurs between the months of July and September and is a remarkable sight to behold indeed!
Minneriya National Park also offers many opportunities to spot large water birds. Painted storks, lesser adjutants and spot-billed pelicans can be seen here. Endemic species of birds like the Sri Lankan junglefowl, brown-capped babbler, Sri Lanka grey-hornbill and crimson-fronted barbet are commonly spotted in Minneriya.
WASGAMUWA NATIONAL PARK
Wasgamuwa National Park is located between the Central and North Central provinces, 39,000 hectares of riverine and dry evergreen forests, grasslands and wetlands which are home to numerous animals including sloth bear, sambur, spotted and barking deer, wild boar, purple-faced leaf monkey and 143 species of bird. Wasgamuwa is famous for the elephants which frequent the Mahaweli River which runs along one of the boundaries of the park, and its canals and water-ways which run down from the 470-metre-high ‘Sudu Kande’ nearby. There are also archaeological ruins of ancient settlements within the park, the most important of which is Buduruwayaya, which is comprised of ruins of Buddha statues which are estimated to be over 1,800 years old and buildings which date back to the Polonnaruwa period. Wasgamuwa National Park can be visited while staying in Dambulla area (approximately 1&half hour drive).
UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK
Uda Walawe is undoubtedly the best place in Sri Lanka to see wild Asian Elephants throughout the year. Unlike other parks, Uda Walawe does not have a seasonal variation in elephant numbers and it is easy to encounter a few of them at any time of the year. Morning and evenings are the best time to visit the park and late evenings give the best lighting for photography with amazing sun sets. Other mammals that can be seen include Wild Boar, Spotted Deer, Barking Deer, Jackal, Samber, Water Buffalo, Black-naped Hare, the endemic Toque Macaque and Gray Langers. If lucky, you can also see Leopard and some of the other smaller cats like Fishing cat & Jungle cat.There is limited accommodation in Udawalawe but it can be reached as a day trip from south coast properties or visited whilst driving from the hills to the coast.
SINHARAJA FOREST RESERVE
Located in south-west Sri Lanka, Sinharaja is the country's last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. Although covering a relatively small area it is considered a biodiversity hotspot, with many endemic & threatened species of trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Sinharaja straddles a series of mountains and ridges in the country’s wet zone and contains a number of streams, waterfalls and fresh-water springs which flow into the Gin Ganga on the southern boundary and Kalu Ganga to the north. It is an excellent location for birdwatching, out of the 26 endemic birds in Sri Lanka, the 21 species all occur here, including the elusive red-face malkoha, the ashy-headed babler, the green billed coucal, the wood pigeon and the Sri Lankan blue magpie. Accommodation is quite limited in the area but it is possible to visit Sinharaja as a day trip from the south & west coast, or on route from the hill country.