They say tigers make the orchestra of the forest play. When the lord of the jungle is on the prowl, sambar and spotted deer whistle and snort, while langur monkeys, magpies and babblers pitch in with coughs, grunts and chatters. Any one of these alarm calls is enough to transform a long, dusty tiger-spotting safari into an edge-of-the-seat drama, snapping your senses taut as you strain for a glimpse of smouldering orange fur, the black and white tufts of twitching ears or the flick of a tail.
The most recent census indicate an increase in the number of the world’s wild tigers to around 3,900 individuals – good news for the beleaguered big cat, but no guarantee you’ll see one. Tigers are still spread thin across India’s spattering of reserves and national parks. They’re secretive, solitary hunters with vast territories and impeccable camouflage. To boost your chances of a sighting, visit between October and April when leaves fall and grasses wither (improving visibility) and water sources recede, concentrating tigers – and their prey – around waterholes.
Tiger numbers in Ranthambhore – Rajasthan’s premier wildlife reserve – are not what they used to be, but the national park can still feel overrun by jeep safaris. Focus instead on quieter Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. They’re easily combined into a manageable safari circuit. Bandhavgarh has one of India’s highest tiger densities, and you also have a good chance of spotting sloth bear, wild dog and leopard. Kanha is renowned for its swamp deer and avian beauties like the Malabar pied hornbill, while Pench National Park (inspiration for Kipling’s Jungle Book) is studded with dry-season river pools, framed by teak forest – ideal spots for tigers to spring an ambush. For something even more adventurous, make tracks for Satpura National Park where, in addition to game drives, you can explore tiger country on walking safaris and boat trips.