he Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is called the heart of the country because it’s positioned right at the center. This is the destination to see tigers, which are endangered worldwide, in India. It has six tiger reserves and 10 national parks, and as many as 526 big cats call it home—the most in any Indian state (though the southern state of Karnataka is a close second with 524 tigers, according to a 2018 census). The population is the highest in Bandhavgarh National Park, with 124 tigers, so I calculated the odds and planned a trip to celebrate a friend’s birthday with big cats.
Spotting a tiger is a matter of luck, no matter what the numbers indicate. Tigers are extremely territorial and thus solitary creatures, and elusive to spot. With so much jungle to hide behind, tigers don’t have the same need to hunt in groups like lions on an open-plain savannah. Many people asked me to manage my expectations about seeing tigers in the wild. Not everyone spots the big cat in the wild, and those who warned me hadn’t. I learned on my first safari in South Africa to appreciate nature and all its creatures, big and small—a thought that was reaffirmed in Nepal. I vowed to appreciate the experience, and if we caught sight of a tiger, it would be another blessing.
Blessed! We saw not just one, but three. We saw not just the big cats, but also a mama bear with a cub on her back. As you’d expect, major bragging took place after this experience.
The Perfect Setting
In spring and summer, the first thing you notice as you deboard the plane in Jabalpur—the nearest airport town and three-hour-and-a-half drive from Bandhavgarh National Park—is the oppressive heat. It’s in your face. In 2022, India is being hit by heat waves after heat waves, so the scenery was different shades of brown with fleeting pops of green.
Dry season gives you the best chances of spotting big cats, so April to June is the summer window for a safari vacation (parks close for the monsoons). All guidebooks, however, will advise you to stay hydrated, keep a hat handy, and wear loose, cotton clothes. Bearing 40+ degrees Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) is no joke.
Bandhavgarh has a gamut of stay options, from the luxurious Taj to the unassuming Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board accommodations. Our drive ended at Bagh Tola, a boutique property around 15 minutes from the Tala zone. The accommodation shares the boundary with the buffer zone of the park, and with just six air-conditioned tents, a restaurant, and a lounge, it’s intimate and small—something that assuaged my still persisting COVID-19 fears. The decor theme is, of course, animals: motifs, photographs, and books on wildlife are splattered in common areas and rooms. And during the three days I spent there, I didn’t see any plastic.
The tents are straddled on wooden planks, and the flooring is also made out of wood. Every movement causes a squeak. One night we were watching the skies from our cozy sit-out area, and the house dog catapulted across to kiss us goodnight. My laptop, too, got a nice licking. This was an easygoing, relaxed setting, where family-style dining meant that guests shared meals at the long table and exchanged their stories from the jungle.
Since just one other tent was occupied during our stay, we chatted with the manager of the property, Kaustabh Mulay. A wildlife enthusiast and naturalist, he runs his own travel-tour company, so he had deep insights to share about wildlife in India. Passionately, he explained that tigers in Bandhavgarh were running out of space—there are just too many in one closed area—so there’s infighting leading to deaths. In Assam, a north-eastern state that’s flooding again as I write, every year, animals die in the Kaziranga National Park because of a lack of an animal corridor to escape the floods. There’s a black panther in Karnataka’s Kabini Wildlife Sanctuary that’s become world-famous—Kaustabh shared his own story of capturing it in his lens.
A fulfilling safari experience includes conversations, with your guides, with locals, and with fellow travelers. Your triumphs and disappointments in the jungle become communal, and everyone cheers for you to find what you’re looking for. There’s a mutual respect and appreciation for nature.
Call of the Tiger
Many years ago, I read Born Free by Joy Adamson. I was fascinated by Elsa, the lion cub that Joy and her husband raised and later freed. I never watched the British film that made Elsa a household name in the 1960s, but when I heard stories of the female tiger we were looking for in Bandhavgarh, I was reminded of her. Elsa, I called her privately when the guide said they were still thinking of a good name. (Guides and park staff name tigers to keep a track of them. These are generally descriptive words indicating their appearance.)
It was 8:45 a.m. We had been in the buffer zone for almost three hours without any major sightings apart from langurs, roosters, and peacocks dancing to catch the attention of uninterested peahens. But our driver and guide were hopeful. After multiple rounds of the zone, we were parked near a waterhole where the tigers usually rested. The previous evening in the Tala zone of the park, we had a fortunate encounter just as we were leaving: a black bear and a cub stood at a distance. We discovered that it was a rare occurrence and worthy of big congratulations.
So the morning after as the sun shone bright, we waited for another lucky strike. Safari guides listen intently to echoes of animals and turn off the engine to know where the tigers are camouflaging in the thick of the jungle. The chase the previous evening had educated us about their ways. “If you see a tiger the moment you enter the park, you won’t savor the experience,” our guide that evening had told us in Hindi. We were in for the full experience: the chase and the anticipation.
Our patience was rewarded by the safari gods after all. A male cub strutted to the water, followed by his sister, and then the mother. One cub was missing from the group, the guide informed us. Elsa, after she was set free, had three cubs too, I recalled.
The family of three dipped their bottoms in the water and cooled themselves off. We, along with another jeep of tourists, watched them from a distance. Our phone cameras couldn’t do justice to the spectacular scene; often nature defies technology and tells you to just be.
But our morning didn’t end there. After around 15 minutes, the mommy tiger grew bored. She gracefully stood from the muddy water, the lower half of her body caked, and prowled in the direction of dense trees that were out of bounds for jeeps. Her cubs disappeared soon after. The guide decided one more encounter on the last day of our trip was possible through another route, so we took a chance. The only sound in the jungle were tires screeching on dust paths and yells of the langurs.
That’s when we were met with another incredible example of life in nature: the same tigress pouncing on a bull, biting down on its neck, retreating into the trees with the carcass. “Don’t make any noise or she’ll leave the prey and go back,” the guide told us and the other jeep. It may seem gruesome, but you’re not allowed to disturb the animals or interfere with anything when you’re in a national park.
The bull’s hind legs twitched for minutes before it finally lost the fight. I was in awe of Mother Nature and the vicious laws of the jungle.
Even before the predator and the prey experience, the national park had pulled something loose in me. It was the crisp air, mixed with jungle dust. Wide open areas and grazing deer transitioned to thickly forested areas covered with dry leaves. The picture was sharper in the clear blue skies; the flutter and chirping of birds much more pronounced in the quiet.
I can clearly imagine our jeep winding through the remote forest. The engine roaring and the tires crackling over gravel as it climbed uphill and downhill. The green tree tops offering precious shade in summer heat; a herd of deer crossing the path in front of our jeep; monkeys and langurs swinging from branch to branch, tree to tree.
In my ethereal album of travel memories, I have dedicated pages to nature and wildlife, and Bandhavgarh is prominently featured. Being in nature was refreshing after days, weeks, months of dull and lull in the city. Like an icy glass of sweet mint lemonade on a hot summer day, it felt like, in one word: relief.
- Bandhavgarh is located in the Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh (MP).
- My transportation itinerary was Delhi to Jabalpur (flight), Jabalpur to Bandhavgarh (hotel cab), Bandhavgarh to Khajuraho (hotel cab), Khajuraho to Gwalior (train), and Gwalior to Delhi (flight).
- The cost of a safari in Bandhavgarh National Park is Rs 8,000 ($103) per jeep.
- Stay at Bagh Tola is Rs 13,000 ($167) upwards for two people per night inclusive of meals.
- You’re not allowed to get down from the jeep in the national park apart from designation areas. Wear comfortable clothes and don’t forget to carry a mosquito repellent close.
- There are a limited number of jeeps allowed in the zones at one time, so book your safaris as soon as possible—preferably when you finalize your stay. Everything is online, but your hotel can arrange it for you.
- The pandemic has impacted the tourism industry in Madhya Pradesh badly. If you can, tip generously.