1 of the best places to see wild tigers in India, a conservation success

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From the moment I enter Bandhavgarh National Park, it’s clear the wildlife is never far away.

On my first morning, Simranjit, my guide and a dedicated naturalist, spots the scarily large prints of a sloth bear. Moments later, we spy the footprints of a tiger.

Bandhavgarh’s big cats are the main reason people visit this sprawling national park in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, but the diversity of the wildlife often ensure they leave with an appreciation of species they’d never even heard of.

Take the tailor bird Simranjit points out to me. As it flits from one leaf to another, my guide explains that it’s building a nest – but not just any nest. Tailor birds earned their name because they stitch together leaves, using grass or cobwebs, to build their home.

And then there are sloth bears. Perhaps because of the name, I’d pictured something small, slow and cuddly, but the supersized footprints we spot suggest otherwise. It turns out these creatures have a vicious streak which stems partly from their very poor eyesight.

“If I’m on foot, I’d rather see a tiger than a sloth bear,” says Simranjit, who explains that, while tigers generally do everything they can to avoid humans, sloth bears simply won’t see a human until they’re incredibly close, at which point they’ll often lash out in a state of panic.

Simranjit works for the Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge. It’s one of the closest lodges to the park, which is divided into three core zones, known as Tala, Magadhi and Khitauli. Easy access to the park isn’t the only reason to base yourself at this lodge, which was opened in 1992 by Pradeep Sankhala.

Pradeep wasn’t someone looking to profit from the booming tiger tourism industry; he was the son of the late conservationist Kailash Sankhala, the man who, more than anyone, transformed the fortunes of India’s tigers.

In the late 1950s, Kailash, then a Forest Service officer tasked with managing various Indian wildlife sanctuaries, raised the alarm about tigers, which were on a fast track to extinction. He went on to lead Project Tiger, then the world’s largest conservation project.

Under Kailash, dozens of dedicated wildlife reserves were created and tiger populations started to revive. Today, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Wildlife offers a Kailash Sankhala Fellowship in his honour.

His biggest legacy is the Tiger Trust, a not-for-profit organisation he established in 1989 to, among other things, train forest staff and press for the prosecution of people caught committing wildlife crimes.

When Pradeep opened the Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge, he created one of the first lodges to merge tiger conservation with tourism.

Today, Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge is managed by a member of the third generation of the Sankhala family – Pradeep’s son Amit. A trustee of the Tiger Trust, Amit also manages the Kanha Jungle Lodge, near Kanha National Park, and, like his father and grandfather, is regarded as an important Indian wildlife conservationist.

“It’s a multi-generational thing,” says Amit. “I take inspiration from [my forebears’] work, and I’ve always been in and around these wild places.

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“The tiger is one of the most fascinating mammals in the animal kingdom, and by saving them you’re saving the entire habitat around them, and in turn saving our forests.

“For centuries, the communities living near these jungles lived in harmony with wild animals. We just need to make our governments take the same approach.”

Although new threats have joined the old enemies of hunting and poaching, Amit believes that a growing awareness of the importance of wildlife reserves is helping to secure their survival.

“Worldwide, the battle for conservation is a very similar one – it’s about human and animal conflict, loss of habitat, poaching and so on. India has a big challenge when it comes to balancing development with the need to save its wild places.

“Having said that, Project Tiger has secured over 50 tiger reserves, and the tiger population has steadily grown in the past decade. And although the Indian Forest Service is constantly challenged by limited budgets and political battles relating to mining and highway construction, they’ve done a phenomenal job in the field of conservation.”

Wildlife corridors – unofficial expanses of wilderness connecting havens – play a crucial role in preventing interbreeding between tigers that would otherwise be unable to find new partners, while increasing the diversity in Bandhavgarh. It was along one such corridor that, in 2017, a herd of elephants arrived.

Reminders that Bandhavgarh is a park full of life are everywhere. There’s almost always a gaggle of langur monkeys in sight, and vultures, owls, kingfishers and hornbills fill the sky.

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Long before I spot my first tiger I’ve seen barking deer, jackals, wild boar, peacocks, rattlesnakes and mongooses.

This diversity isn’t simply down to the park’s expansion. There’s a sense that things are done differently here.

A few years ago I visited Panna National Park, also in Madhya Pradesh, where my exploration took place to a soundtrack of crackling radios. My one tiger sighting – as magnificent as it was – occurred moments after my guide had been alerted to the cat’s presence by another guide.

By the time we reached the specified location, five jeeps surrounded the tiger, which was unfazed by the crunch of gears and whirls of dust as the vehicles did their frantic dance, reversing so that other jeeps could take their turn and moving forward when the tiger quickened its pace, to ensure the SLR-wielding visitors shoehorned into the back could frame their perfect shot.

Only 20 per cent of Bandhavgarh National Park is open to visitors. With a total area of 1,536 square kilometres – about one-and-a-half Hong Kongs – there’s still plenty of room for wild animals to roam.

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Radios are banned in the park and none of the tigers wear collars – devices that elsewhere are often by guides to track down the big cats.

There’s something wonderful about constantly seeing reminders of the presence of tigers but knowing sightings aren’t guaranteed. Their reclusiveness has little to do with low numbers (with around 200 tigers, Bandhavgarh has one of India’s healthiest populations) and more to do with the size of the park.

That said, I don’t have to wait long before my first sighting – a male strutting along a dried riverbed in the park’s Tala Zone, with its forested valleys and soaring hills. We spend a blissful few minutes watching him pad through the undergrowth, pausing for shade in a nook in the hillside before continuing his slow meander.

Sure enough, though, the inevitable happens and we hear the hum of a jeep engine. Moments later, it rumbles into view, the passengers soon noticing – like a tiger spotting a tasty-looking gazelle – our raised binoculars and laser-like focus.

We head towards the park’s exit, feeling smug as we leave the other passengers desperately trying to bag a shot of the retreating tiger. Never have I enjoyed such a lengthy, uninterrupted tiger sighting, and I suspect it wouldn’t happen in any other park.

I would still like to see a sloth bear in the wild, though – but perhaps I’m just being greedy.

ALSO READ: As India looks to Namibia for cheetahs, will it be a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money?

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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