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Safari in India: The Big Five plus One

The goal of many safari goers on an African safari is to see the Big 5. Although India does not have the range of species one can see on the plains of Africa, it does have its own version of the Big Five they call “the big five plus one”.  India’s big five plus one include the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Indian Leopard, the Indian Gaur, the Greater One Horned Rhinoceros, the Asian Elephant and the Sloth Bear. Many of the same species are found in Nepal (see our post on Nepalese Safaris).

Unlike Africa where you can see the big five in one location (see our blog on Sabi Sand, South Africa), there are few places in India that is home to all of them together. We visited two National Parks in India, Bandhavgarh National Park and Kanha National Park and were able to spot four, the sloth bear (rare), the bengal tiger, the Indian elephant and the Indian gaur.

India safar, Bandhavgarh, Mondisti author with guide

We had spotted the one-horned rhino in Chitwan, Nepal, where we also saw a goat that had been killed by a leopard (our plus one), but did not see the leopard (see our post on Chitwan, Nepal). Leopards are plentiful in Africa, of course.

What India lacks in the number and varieties of animal species, and in the number of predators, it makes up for in the fact that it is home to one of the most colourful and feared predators, the bengal tiger.

Tiger population in India

The wild tiger population has dropped 97% over the last hundred years, making them an endangered species. Some fields of study have concluded that tigers’ decline is due to habitat loss and prey depletion and not direct killing. Other studies have concluded that poaching is by far the biggest threat facing tigers today. Illegal demand for tiger bones (used in tonics and medicines), tiger skin (seen as a status symbol) and other body parts, is driving the killing and trafficking.

India has made a concerted effort to increase the number of tigers and places like Bandhavgarh have programs that deal with monitoring and stricter wildlife control policies. According to a government estimate, there are now nearly 3,000 Bengal tigers in the wild in India, a 33 percent increase since 2014.

Bandhavgarh National Park

With a rich historical past, Bandhavgarh National Park consists of a core area of 105 sq km and a buffer area of approximately 400 sq km of topography that varies between steep ridges, forest and open meadows. The density of the Tiger population here is the highest in all of India, with 65 to 70 adult tigers at large in the Park.

With the tiger at the top of the food chain, it contains at least 37 species of mammals. According to forest officials, there are more than 350 species of birds, about 80 species of butterflies.

Every year Bandhavgarh National Park is open for visitors from the 15th of October till 30th of June. As per the climate of Central part of India, the peak season for Bandhavgarh National Park is during winters which is October to March. Most of the tourists visit the park between November and March, mainly because the summer’s heat is unbearable.

India safari, Bandhavgarh, Bengal Tiger pooping
Tigers are taught by their moms to poo in the water to eliminate the smell.

More specifically, the period between November and February is excellent for visiting Bandhavgarh National Park as the monsoons are over and the vegetation is lush. However, although during the time period from March to May most of the vegetation at Bandhavgarh National Park gets dried, tiger sightings are relatively easier but the temperatures have risen dramatically.

Tiger Safari in Bandhavgarh

Most tigers at Bandhavgarh today are descendants of two tigers, Charger and Sita, both deceased. Charger got his name because he would charge elephants and jeeps. He appeared on the cover of National Geographic and is considered the second most photographed tiger in the world, while Sita was the most photographed. Stories of these two tigers and their offspring are still prevalent in Bandhavgarh.

Bandhavgarh National Park was the former hunting preserve of the Maharaja (great ruler), today it has been divided into three major zones named as Tala, Magdi and Bamera out of which the Tala zone attracts major number of tourists by offering the most tiger sighting opportunities.

Due to the Park’s success, park authorities are also focusing on expanding the other zones by providing more opportunities for tiger spotting.

Unlike all other safari destinations we have been to, Bandhavgarh park authorities assign vehicles a specific route. Complete with vehicle trakking devices, authorities keep control over the number of vehicles in any one area. Vehicles also are required to keep a certain distance from each other, making it difficult when trying to exit the park before closing. It also makes it difficult when tigers are spotted, as all vehicles want to get as close as possible. Even though rules may be in place, there seemed to be a lack of protocol such as place in line, etc, with the situation devolving into chaos pretty quickly once a tiger is spotted.

White tigers in Bandhavgarh

White Tigers, now a major attraction around the world’s zoos, were first discovered near Bandhavgarh. The terrain in which they flourished is now broken, with rocky hill ranges, running roughly east west, interspersed with grassy swamps and forested valleys. For a white Bengal tiger to be born, both parents must carry the unusual gene for white colouring, which only happens naturally about once in 10,000 births.

Although today there are a large number of white tigers in captivity, no white tigers have been seen in the wild since 1958.

India safari, Bandhavgarh, Disney crew filming baby tigers, Mondisti author in jeep

Disney crew spotting in Bandhavgarh

Bandhavgarh – Central India. We ran into a Disney documentary crew following some really young cubs. They are using the same crew as BBC used to film the “Dynasties” segments. We sighted much older cubs frolicking in the waterhole.

Sloth Bear Sighting in Bandhavgarh

Sloth bear sighting in Bandhavgarh Park — special thanks to our naturalist Kartikay Singh for spotting the two young bears from our jeep. These are found in India (and neighbouring Nepal and Sri Lanka).

They have canine teeth and have killed humans although not to eat, just in self-defense or when felt threatened. They feed mostly on termites and fruit. The bear is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the threatened species list due to the loss of habitat and being hunted by humans for for its claws.

Elephant abuse

Bandhavgarh provides elephant shows and elephant tours and rides.

Hordes of foreign tourists flock to different venues in India to ride on elephants. For many, riding an elephant is on their bucket list. Not only does such a fantasy reinforce Indian stereotypes, riding on captive elephants causes immense trauma and pain to these sensitive animals. Most people who ride on elephants do not realize that captive elephants are brutally exploited to provide humans with a few photos. Some do realize this but ride them anyway.

Even though the plight of the captured elephant has been well documented, tourists persist with their demands for elephant rides. This demand continues to fuel the capture of these animals from the wild, thereby perpetuating the cruelty.

In order to meet the demands, elephant calves are captured and entire wild elephant families are disrupted and destroyed. Many times the parents are killed in the process. Once caught, they are starved and repeatedly beaten while confined to a small cage in a process called the “crush.’ The training crush is a method by which wild elephants can be tamed for domestication, using restriction in a cage, sometimes with the use of corporal punishment or negative reinforcement.

Moreover, many calves die during this mindless treatment and those who survive are certainly permanently traumatized. Once they are no longer able to perform, those who survive are sent to zoos or circuses.


Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park, with its bamboo forests, lakes and open grasslands was the inspirational setting for Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel, The Jungle Book. The park is one of the largest national parks in India, with a core area of 940 square KM (584 square miles) and surrounding area of 1,005 square KM (625 square miles).

Also known as Kanha Tiger Reserve, Kanha National Park is situated between the range of Satpuras in the heart of India and the central Indian highlands. Although long considered a Tiger reserve, it is now considered one of the best wildlife areas in the world.

Tigers, jackals and wild pigs can be spotted in Kanha Meadows. The elevated plateau of Bamhnidadar is home to birds of prey. Animals often gather at the watering holes of Sondar Tank and Babathenga Tank. The park’s flora and fauna are documented in the park’s Kanha Museum.

Nature lovers thrive in these landscapes of luxurious meadows along with the wooded strands and dense forests. Making the area more beautiful and inviting are the crystal clear streams amidst the dense jungle which cleanse their surroundings and make the wildlife thrive.

The Tribal communities living on the edge of Kanha National Park

When Kanha was declared a national park in 1955 many of the native tribes were evicted from their place of origin in order to conserve the wildlife’s habitat. The two indigenous tribes of Baiga and Gond found themselves relocated to areas outside the main park, agricultural areas that were not as fertile nor as productive as their original home inside the park. The Gond tribe is said to be more financially prosperous, though they live side by side with the Baiga, the poorer tribe.

India, Kanha Bandha Tola woman with jewelry

Being dependent on the forest for their day to day needs has been very difficult, especially for these poorer Baiga tribal villages. The future has been uncertain ever since they were moved out of the Park .

In order to survive, the women of Bandha Tola (Baiga village) started to make rare tribal jewelry to sell in the local villages. Started in October 2017 with just one Baiga woman, the project has gained momentum over the last year and currently around 50 women from three different villages make colourful bracelets and necklaces. They feel incredibly empowered and in control of their own livelihood.

The material to make the necklaces and bracelets is supplied by the Last Wilderness Foundation, who also markets their jewelry at local souvenir shops and e-marketplaces. The women told us that they feel that despite being relocated, their culture and traditions will survive in their jewelry. They also realize they could make more money if they could do their own marketing.

Mondisti’s Indian Safari Trip Tips:

  1. A safari in India is very different from an African safari, but equally rewarding.
  2. Bandhavgarh National Park was more abundant with wildlife but Kanha National Park had more quaint villages to explore in the vicinity of the park.
  3. A village tour at both places is a must if you want to gain insight into local indigenous tribal customs.
  4. In Africa there were more exclusive safari areas within the major parks.
  5. We did not like Bandhavgarh’s policy of assigning routes. We would have preferred to have all routes available to our guide on any given day. For instance, there was a sighting of two tiger cubs being currently filmed by the Disney crew. Because it was not on our route, we could not go there.

L. Dipronio

Lucie is founder of Mondisti, and has a background in finance and public policy.

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