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Go wild: India’s best national parks for wildlife spotting

India's resident wildlife is as varied as the vast subcontinent itself. Grab your binoculars and head out on a safari with a difference in these national parks

Go wild: India’s best national parks for wildlife spotting
West Bengal tiger in the mangroves of Sundarbans. Image: Alamy

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1. Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh

Tell me more: This national park tops India’s tiger spotting charts, with around 50 tigers in a 100sq km area.
What to see: If you’re looking to tick off the felines on a safari, then this will prove a popular spot, but there are plenty of other animals here, including chital, sambar and barking deer, wild boar, antelope, Indian bison, wild dogs, leopards, blue bulls, and bears.
When to go: It’s hot but April-June sees wildlife congregating around watering holes, and there’s better chance of spotting more elusive species.

2. Dudhwa National Park, Uttar Pradesh

Tell me more: On the border of Nepal, Dudhwa is a great place to spot one-horned rhino, abundant since being reintroduced.
What to see: Daily Forest Department safaris are a good way to access this lodge-lite park. These also take in Dudhwa’s herds of wild elephants and its healthy population of the state animal, barasinghas (swamp deer), which can be spotted near the Suheli River.
When to go: November-April. As with most of the northern/mountainous parks, you’ll need warm clothes December-January.

3. Periyar National Park, Kerala

Tell me more: Periyar is a well-known tiger reserve and home to numerous Indian elephants.
What to see: High in the Cardamom Hills of India’s Western Ghats, Periyar is a prime spot for Indian elephant and tiger safaris. This isn’t a wilderness experience (peak times can feel more like a safari park), but book an overnight nature trek for the best experience, and the chance to see rare lion-tailed macaques, sambar deer, leopards and Indian bison.
When to go: November-April. Avoid Indian national holidays to beat the crowds.

4. Sundarbans National Park, West Bengal

Tell me more: The ‘beautiful forest’ — which is the literal translation of Sundarbans — bordering the Bay of Bengal is in fact a dense, swampy tangle of jungle, mangrove and riverine islands at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. It’s rich safari territory.
What to see: Legendary for its dense population of strong-swimming (but elusive) Bengal tigers, the Sundarbans also hosts an impressive 180 species of bird, the muntjac or ‘barking’ deer, rhesus monkeys, and water monitors; plus notable conservation work with the Ridley sea turtle, and the world’s largest hatchery of estuarine crocodiles.
When to go: September-March. Summer can be oppressively hot and muggy, with rain disrupting travel plans in this remote region.

5. Jawai Conservation Reserve, Rajasthan

Tell me more: Not a national park but a hidden-gem wildlife spot, wedged between Udaipur and Jodhpur, still home to Rabari herdsman.
What to see: The real draw here is the remarkable number of leopards existing relatively peacefully alongside humans. Wild grasslands and pastoral fields are patchworked around a huge reservoir, attracting marsh crocodiles, and a boggling abundance of flamingos, cranes and other birds. For big chances of seeing those spotted big cats, book into one of Jawai’s few tented camps to take jeep safaris or herdsman-guided hikes into the boulder-strewn hills.
When to go: December-March.

6. Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

Tell me more: India’s oldest national park dates back to 1936 and remains an atmospheric place to see the country’s headline animals. A pristine northern Indian wilderness in the foothills of the Himalayas, one of Corbett’s big draws is its variety of landscapes, from dense forest to wide open grassland and savannah.
What to see: Hundreds of tigers and huge herds of wild elephants. You should also be able to spot sloth bears, langur monkeys, rhesus macaques, gharial crocodiles and several species of deer, plus otters and peacocks, along with the Technicolor array of birds you’d expect in such diverse terrain.
When to go: November-May.

7. Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh/Maharashtra

Tell me more: Straddling two states, Pench joins Kanha and Bandhavgarh in the top trio of this region’s tiger reserves that inspired Rudyard Kipling.
What to see: With fewer tigers than its siblings, there are not as many tourists but with some 50 cats in the Madhya Pradesh area, this is still a thriving population. You’ll also find endangered Indian wild dogs, langurs, spotted deer, jackals, and wild boar, while the park itself, with dense canopies of large-leafed teak, misty watering holes and wide-open grasslands, is a pretty magical place to just be.
When to go: December-April.

8. Sasan-Gir National Park, Gujarat

Tell me more: These thick, dense forests are the last refuge of the endangered Asiatic lion.
What to see: They may not have the bold shaggy heads of African lion, but the Asiatic lion is no less imposing. Gir is the world’s very last wild habitat for these majestic mammals, home to just over 500. Not a classic park on the Indian safari circuit, Sasan-Gir is a more relaxed wildlife experience but book ahead to ensure you get a permit. And pop into the crocodile-breeding centre near the permit office to see a dinosaur-like display of hatchlings.
When to go: December-April.    

Stay tuned for more India wildlife stories here.

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).