About 19.39 percent of India is forested. Spread across different geographical and climatic zones are over 500 wildlife preserves, variously classified as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries, wildlife preserves and tiger reserves. These range all the way from the arid Desert National Park in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert to the brilliant marine flora and fauna of the Marine National Park in the Andaman Islands. From the high altitude Hemis National Park, home to the elusive snow leopard, in Ladakh; to the forests of the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh: Kipling country (this is where Jungle Book was set), where the Royal Bengal tiger reigns supreme.
For a wildlife enthusiast visiting India, it makes sense to decide beforehand what type of wildlife you want to see. The Royal Bengal tiger remains one of Indian wildlife’s biggest stars, even in spite of the decimation of the tiger population as a result of deforestation and poaching. Your best chances of spotting a tiger are in the many tiger reserves across the country: dependable destinations include Ranthambhore, Rajasthan; Bandhavgarh and Kanha, Madhya Pradesh Corbett, Uttaranchal and Sunderbans, West Bengal. And where the tiger ranges, you’ll also likely see associated species that form part of the same ecosystem. Spotted deer (chital), barking deer or muntjac (kakar its bark-like alarm call often heralds the presence of a tiger in the vicinity), swamp deer (sambhar), wild boar, langur, leopard, porcupine, hyena, jackal, sloth bear, bison and Asian elephant are among the more prominent and visible species.
Other ecological zones are known for other, less widespread, species. Assam’s Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary, for example, is home to the rare one-horned Indian rhinoceros. High altitude protected areas like Dachigam and Hemis (Jammu and Kashmir) and Binsar and Nandadevi National Park in Uttaranchal are home to species ranging from snow leopards to black bear and ibex. Far off in the north eastern corner of the country, species like the hoolock gibbon and the golden langur are to be found or you can try for a glimpse of the elusive dancing deer among the islands of Manipur’s Loktak Lake.
And then there are the bird sanctuaries. Important areas include Keoladeo Ghana (Rajasthan; a UNESCO World Heritage site, though unfortunately declining rather alarmingly and in danger of being delisted), Chilka Lake (Orissa) and Vedanthangal, Tamilnadu. Nearly all centre round a water body: marshland, lake, or river, which attracts a vast number of birds, including migratory species.
Other excellent locales for birdwatching include the Himalayas and the hills of peninsular India even though there aren’t any well known designated bird sanctuaries here, you can see plenty of interesting species. Garhwal and Kumaon (Uttaranchal) and Kangra (Himachal Pradesh), for instance, are a birdwatcher’s delight: with a little patience, you can see yellow wagtails, yellow-billed blue magpies, tree creepers, green barbets, blue-throated barbets, Himalayan bulbuls, and more.
India, thus, can be very rewarding and exciting for anybody who’s keen on wildlife. There are, however, some things you should keep in mind.
Nearly all wildlife preserves are closed during the monsoon, generally between June and October. The monsoon coincides with the breeding season for many species, so (other than some upland wildlife parks), just about every protected area is offlimits to visitors at this time.
For wildlife parks south of the Himalayas including parks spread across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, the foothills of Uttaranchal and peninsular India summer is a good time to go wildlife spotting. Hot summers, just before the monsoon, dry out water almost everywhere except at larger waterholes, which then become magnets for wildlife and convenient places to hang about waiting for animals to put in an appearance.
Tourist facilities and accommodation differ from one park to another. You can expect a wide range of accommodation options (including luxurious tented camps) at the more popular parks Ranthambhore, Corbett, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Keoladeo Ghana, Periyar, Kaziranga and Gir (Gujarat; the only place where the Asiatic lion can be seen in the wild). Other, lesser known and more remote parks Manas, Nandadevi, Wynaad, Chilka, Vedanthangal, Sunderbans, Rajaji, Pench, et al – have limited accommodation. In some cases, the only accommodation available consists of government-operated forest department rest-houses. These, at times, can be very barebones, without electricity or even food. Before setting out, make sure your accommodation’s booked, and you know exactly what facilities are available.
Do pay attention to the rules and regulations governing entry to a park. These are usually displayed at park entrances and are printed on park permits and entry tickets. Some rules are common to all parks: no hunting or touching animals; no fires; no music or loud noises, and so on. Some rules are park-specific. For example, parks that harbour animals like tigers or elephants invariably forbid walking or cycling in the park (you can move about in the park only in a closed vehicle or on elephantback), and do not allow visitors to pitch tents. One year I was at Corbett, an American tourist managed to evade park authorities and pitch a tent near a tourist complex. He was found dead the next morning, mauled by a passing tiger.
Do check for permits before you arrive at a park. Visitors’ permits are usually obtainable at park gates, but some remote parks especially those in the Himalayas may need special permits that can only be obtained from a Forest Officer or other official, often in a distant district headquarter. Get the permit before you reach the park.
Information on park timings, lists of important and common species, and basic park topography can usually be obtained from state tourism Web sites. Once you know which state a park is in, search the Net for “[state name] State Tourism Development Corporation” for example, Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation to get to the official tourism department Web site. State Tourism Development Corporation Web sites generally contain a fair bit of information on local wildlife and wildlife parks. At the very least, you’ll be able to get hold of phone numbers that you can call for further information.