It’s open season at India’s wildlife reserves

India has nearly a hundred wildlife parks. But where to go depends on what you want to see and the experience you desire to have. As the parks open for visitors, we list the top five wildlife experiences for you:

SPOT TIGERS AT KANHA NATIONAL PARK Over 900sq km in size, Kanha National Park is located in Madhya Pradesh, India’s national park country. The inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling’s novel Jungle Book, this park is home to civets, langurs, hyenas and the 12-horned barasingha (swamp deer), which has been brought back from the brink of extinction. But, of course, the star attraction here is the Royal Bengal tiger. Kanha’s terrain, with its wide open grasslands, makes it one of the best parks to spot tigers. (Corbett’s forests, for example, often make it difficult to spot the elusive cat). The best time to visit the park is between November and May and you’re most likely to see a tiger April onwards.   Where to stay: Kanha Earth Lodge from Pugdundee Safaris borders Kanha’s buffer zone and is spread out over 16 acres. Its 12 bungalows with their private, open verandas are done in the local Gond style using local materials, minimising the lodge’s impact on the environment. Its insistence on using local material, labour, and produce means a closer-to-nature experience for you. Kanha Earth Lodge also has its own team of naturalists who can guide guests during bird walks and cycling trails. (http://kanhaearthlodge.com) Doubles from Rs14,000

WATCH BIRDS TAKE FLIGHT AT KEOLADEO NATIONAL PARK Most people prefer animal parks over bird parks. But there’s something magnificent about seeing the world’s tallest flying bird, the sarus crane, take to the sky at sunset. You can even hear the calls of thousands of others as the sky goes from pink to purple to indigo over the vast wetland.

Over 230 species of birds call this park—formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary—home. Each summer, thousands of birds descend upon this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though it is smaller than the other parks on this list, Keoladeo is world-famous and is regarded as one of the most important bird sanctuaries on the planet. Herons, storks, oriental ibis and the sarus crane are just some of the birds you can see here. It also has its fair share of cats—the jungle cat, fishing cat and Asian palm civet are also found here, alongside other land animals like jackals, hyenas and spotted deer. The best time to go is between November and March. Where to stay: The Bagh is a 23-room heritage hotel located about eight kilometeres from Keoladeo National Park. Its grounds shelter over 50 species of plants and trees and the walkways that snake through the property make for a delightful evening walk, when the air is crisp and cool. (http://thebagh.com) Doubles from Rs6,000

CATCH THE INDIAN RHINO AT KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK Home to the world’s largest population of the one-horned (or Indian) rhinoceros, Kaziranga National park covers 43sq km in the northeast state of Assam. It is also home to a large number of tigers, elephants, water buffalos and swamp deer, and is globally acknowledged to be an incredibly important sanctuary for avifauna. The way to do it is to hop on an elephant-back safari as you navigate the tall grassland in the hope of catching a glimpse of the rhino. If you’re really lucky, you might even come across a mother and calf. The best time to visit is from November to May. Where to stay: Diphlu River Lodge, run by Assam Bengal Renovation, is the best bet. Drawing its name from the banks of the river it’s located next to, the lodge has 12 cottages with private verandas. The lodge can also organise visits to nearby villages and tea gardens. (www.diphluriverlodge.com) Doubles from Rs7,500 

SEE ASIATIC LIONS AT GIR NATIONAL PARK This park in Gujarat is the last stronghold of the Asiatic lion, whose territory once stretched from Iran to West Bengal. Covering a total of 1,412sq km, Gir National Park is also home to the Indian leopard, sloth bear, striped hyena and golden jackal. There are also more than 300 species of birds that call the reserve home. Gir is a major success story as far as India’s national parks go—a little over 20 years ago, the number of lions was nearly half of what it is today.

Unfortunately, lions are extremely territorial and prides rule over several kilometres at a stretch. So while their numbers have grown, the size of the park has not. As a result, there are more lions and less space. There are plans to relocate some lions to a new reserve in Madhya Pradesh. If all goes well, there may be two places on the planet to see the Asiatic lion in the future instead of just one. Where to stay: The Fern Gir Forest Resort is an eco friendly resort that has tents, cottages, villas and suites surrounded by landscaped gardens. It has three restaurants and various activities that can be arranged for its guests, like village walks, movie screenings and wildlife photography courses. (www.ferngirforestresort.com) Doubles from Rs7,200

TRACK THE SNOW LEOPARD AT HEMIS NATIONAL PARK The only national park in India to be found north of the Himalayas, Hemis is known to be a sanctuary for numerous endangered species, most famously, the snow leopard.  The park is a whopping 4,400sq km and is the largest park in South Asia. Tibetan gompas dot the sparse landscape and the park is home to the 400-year-old Hemis Monastery. The Asiatic Ibex, Tibetan fox, blue sheep, great Tibetan sheep and the Eurasian brown bear are some of the other animals you can see here.

Unlike other run-of-the-mill safaris, trying to spot a snow leopard is notoriously difficult. More elusive than the tiger and leopard put together, these cats are found at very high altitudes and they blend into the snow. The best time to visit is from May to October, when the weather isn’t as brutally cold. But, if you want a real chance at spotting a snow leopard, grit your teeth and visit in November before the roads close for the winter, when temperatures can plummet as low as -10⁰C. Why? Because the blue sheep (the snow leopard’s natural prey) come down from the craggy mountain tops towards relatively warmer climes in the plains and valleys. And the snow leopards follow, instantly becoming more visible and reachable. Where to stay: There are no hotels or lodges in or around the park. Nearby villages have home-stays and there are a few professional camping groups that will guide you as well.

- Neville Bhandara

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