Dec 26, 2017
Consider India for a safari with a twist.
Seasoned travellers have no trouble reeling off Africa’s Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo. The continent has built a thriving tourism industry and identity on the back of its magnificent wildlife and an African safari is a bucket-list staple of travellers worldwide. But just across the Indian Ocean is another country with more or less the same big five and a fraction of the fame and tourists.
India is rarely regarded as a safari hotspot but it should be. Like Africa, it has lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and wild buffalo. Unlike Africa, it has majestic tigers, three species of bear and a wonderful collection of other creatures found nowhere else on Earth. It’s The Jungle Book come to life – no place more so than the grasslands and low ranges of Madhya Pradesh, which inspired Rudyard Kipling’s fabulous tales of wolves, bears, tigers, leopards, antelopes and wild dogs.
Authorities have been slow to embrace the protection and promotion of India’s natural heritage but that situation is gradually improving. From a paltry total of just five national parks in the early 1970s, India now has more than 100 areas where wildlife and the environment are quarantined from a burgeoning human population. Fifty tiger sanctuaries have been reserved across the length and breadth of the country – from Kerala to the Himalayan foothills, Rajasthan to the Sundarbans. And more conservation areas are planned.
For visitors, the bonus of India’s under-the-radar animal life is that parks tend to be less crowded than in Africa, although lodgings, facilities and guiding standards don’t reach the heights of luxury camps in Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa.
That, too, is changing, with &Beyond, formerly the high-end safari operator CC Africa, pairing with quality sustainable companies to create itineraries across the Subcontinent, such as its 13-day Romantic India & Jungle Safari in Central India that follows big cats and other beasts in the Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Panna national parks.
Homegrown Taj Safaris operates a network of lodges offering twice-daily jungle drives with expert naturalists, accommodation in huts in the vernacular style of Central India and lavish Indian feasts.
Image: Taj Safari's Mahua Kothi, Bandhavgarh National Park
In eastern Assam, the riverboat MV Mahabaahu plies the Brahmaputra between Guwahati and Jorhat, spending two days exploring the World Heritage-listed Kaziranga National Park by water and on a dawn elephant safari.
Kaziranga is home to the country’s greatest concentration of tigers and the largest population of endangered one-horned rhinoceroses. Its zoology also includes water buffalo, eastern swamp deer, elephants, bison (gaur), sambar deer, leopards, more than half of India’s primate species – including its only ape, the hoolock gibbon – and myriad birds.
In Gujarat, Gir National Park is the only place on the planet where you can see Asiatic lions in the wild. And another unique Indian animal encounter to add to the list is snow leopards in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park. This is strictly for the intrepid, given peak viewing is the mating season around February, the coldest time of the year in this remote Himalayan region.