The elusive Bengal Tiger is by far the most photographed and pursued animal in Indian jungles and is on the wishlist of most wildlife or even non wildlife photographers all over the world. The sheer number of tiger photographs that one sees posted on all the popular photo sharing web sites around the world makes one wonder, if a tiger really is that elusive and rare as it is made out to be. I know of many people who consider themselves as wild life photographers, but are obsessed with just one subject, the tiger. Then I also know some people who are not wild life photographers but have bought an expensive camera and lenses just to shoot tigers and do no other type of photography. Tiger tourism has really peaked beyond imagination and then there are many who are making a fast buck and this is now really become a mess in some top reserves like Ranthambhore, where it is now almost impossible to get a safari in a proper zone without paying a premium or having some ‘Jugaad’ (connections) in the highest offices. More on that later.
According to the last census by the Indian Forest Department, there are approximately 2200 tigers in India, with Karnataka having the highest number of tigers in the age group of 1.5 years and more (408) followed by Uttarakhand (340), Madhya Pradesh (308), Tamil Nadu (229), Maharashtra (190), Assam (167), Kerala (136) and Uttar Pradesh (117).
So the tiger is spread almost everywhere in India, yet it is so elusive. So whats the best place to go and photograph them? Well technically, you have a very good chance of spotting a tiger in any heavily wooded area around your town and probably a few decades back, they most likely were actually found in that local wooded area, but after decades of hunting and persecution, they are now seen in only a few pockets of dense reserved/protected forests, most of which are now out of bounds to commoners like us. Even those which are accessible to us have only about 20% of the core area open to tourism. The buffer area around the reserve is also open but except a few lucky sightings it is quite tough to see tigers there.
Today some of the best places to see tigers in India are the reserved forests of Tadoba (Maharashtra), Pench (Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra), Kanha and Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh), Nagarhole (Karnataka), Ranthambhore (Rajashthan), Corbett (Uttarakhand), Kaziranga (Assam) and few more. The tigers in these reserves are easily the most photographed ones in India.
Due to the sheer volume and number of photographs and video material available on these tigers, some of them have attained celebrity status not only in India but all over the world. Some of the most famous tigers alive in India today are Machli (Ranthambhore), Bhola (Corbett), Maya (Tadoba), Bamera (Bandhavgarh), Munna (Kanha). Then there were some like Charger, B2, Lady of the lakes (Machli’s mother), Sita, Bacchi who have had many documentaries made on them and can still be seen one of the wild life channels on TV.
So what exactly is an Indian tiger safari? what are the costs? How to book? Where to go?
Indian tiger safaris are usually conducted by the forest department of India in one of the numerous tiger reserves. So are all tiger reserves the same and can one easily book and expect to see a tiger? Well no, things are not so easy. Even though the state of Karnataka has the highest number of tigers for a state and Sundarbans in West Bengal have probably the highest number of tigers in a single reserve, tiger sightings are not easy in these places. Simply, because it is just not possible to reach the tiger infested areas of these jungles due to undeveloped paths and routes where an average tourist can’t go. Some places with a healthy tiger population are just inaccessible for any kind of sightings. This is where some of the reserves like Ranthambhore are so highly in demand and thus quite difficult for an average joe to get safari bookings at market rates. The last two times that I was at Ranthambhore, it was a pretty bad experience, inspite of spending a lot more than the market cost. This state of affairs is caused by the so called wildlife photographers who are ready to pay any amount for that amazing shot of the tiger in Ranthmabhore, where light and visibility in the reserve is a lot higher than most other reserves. Safaris are bookable online but most are booked by unscrupulous hotel and tour operators and then sold at inflated rates to those visiting later. People ready to pay a premium are given the best zones, have their zones changed where there are reports of sightings and thus a true wildlife enthusiast like me is always given the left overs. Surely a place to avoid if you believe me till things improve.
So now lets get to the part of photographing tigers and booking a safari for yourself
What are safaris and places to stay
A typical Indian safari is done on a Maruti/Suzuki 4X4 vehicle called a Gypsy. The safaris last for 3-4 hours depending on the season and time. Safaris are usually conducted from dawn till mid to late morning and early after noon till dusk. A Gypsy has place for 6 passengers, 1 guide and 1 driver. The guide and driver have a big role in improving your chances to spot a tiger. I would recommend paying extra to retain a good driver and guide. A fully packed Gypsy can be a pretty tough place to carry a lot of photo equipment so I will give recommendations for all best possible photo equipment combos in all Gypsy configurations possible. Places to stay are also numerous, all bordering the main entrance gate of the reserves in all possible budgets like the super expensive 5 star Oberoi Vanyavilas to lowly rooms available for rent at around Rupees 1000 per night. Some resorts are right inside the core zone like Dhikala forest house in Corbett and Baghira log huts in Kanha. If you are a photographer, my recommendation is to spend on a greater number of safaris rather than a posh place to stay as there are many decent, clean, budget places to stay that will take good care of you.
How many safaris
Sighting a tiger is purely a matter of good luck and no amount of planning and scheming will always work for a quality tiger sighting. So the only way to improve your chances are to go on a higher number of safaris. I have often seen people crib that such and such reserve is not good and there are no tigers to be seen. On close inquiry it is found that they hardly went on 1 or 2 safaris and expected National Geographic level shots in those few hours. Wildlife photography is easily one of the most difficult and expensive genres or photography that takes a lot of your time, money and tests your patience. A half an hour documentary on that TV wildlife channel takes a few years to make so how does one expect quality sightings in just a few safaris.
So the key is to visit the jungle as many number of times as possible. Minimum number I would recommend is at least 4 to have a good chance of tiger spotting and of-course more the better.
Most big reserves will clearly have a rate chart displayed and permit online booking of safaris. Typically a Gypsy with a guide and driver for a single safari costs anywhere between 3500-5000 Rupees. These are the rates for Indian nationals visiting these parks and foreigners have to pay significantly more. Premiums on these like those charged at Ranthambhore or during peak holiday seasons like Diwali holidays, peak summer holidays and around new year can be 50 to 100% more depending on availability and surety of sightings, especially when a tiger has made a kill and is likely to remain at a place for longer time thus guarantying a sighting. Some reserves like Bandhavgarh allow full day, zone/route free entries but these are quite expensive and need prior booking and planning. These cost around 25000-30000 Rupees and IMHO are the best option for photographers. The advantage is that you enter the park earlier in the morning than all the other safari vehicles and move out later in the evening after all the other vehicles have moved out, thus enabling you more time in the crucial dusk and dawn time because animals tend to move freely in an empty jungle devoid of human presence at early dawn or late dusk.
Best time to visit these parks
All core areas of all the major parks in India are closed from end of June to October i.e during the monsoon. The parks are then open through out the year till the next monsoon. Now some people are of the opinion that summers are the best time to see and photograph tigers as they are usually seen cooling themselves near water holes, but personally for me the early morning directional winter light is the best time for tiger photography.
So all I can say that any time is good as long as you can see a tiger. Winters can be quite cold especially early mornings with temperatures approaching sub zero degrees and summers can be really hot with afternoon temperatures reaching 40+ degrees. It is always better to check for local weather conditions before packing.
Tigers are most active early morning i.e. between 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM and late evenings i.e. after 5:00 PM depending on how hot it is. In summers, they will usually be seen in some water hole enjoying a cool dip in the water or sleeping in the shade. In winters they are usually seen walking long distances on safari paths where all the Gypsys are driven, some times even head and you have to keep reversing to accommodate the king on his walk. They prefer walking on these jungle roads as the earth is much softer and easier on their paws. This also helps the guides and drivers in tracking tigers by following their pug marks and a good tracker will more often than not, be able to track one for you unless the tiger has moved deep into the jungle. Tiger tracking can be fun but sometimes frustrating if no tiger is found. It is even more painful if some other Gypsy saw one and you missed it by a whisker. It is very easy to know whether or not a Gypsy encountered a tiger simply by looking at the expressions of the Gypsy passengers. Ones who have seen a tiger, are usually an eager and smiling lot with a jovial demeanor while those who have not seen one will look at you with a sense of anticipation and a ray of hope, hoping that you could tell tell them where a tiger could seen.
Packing your camera bag for a tiger safari
There is no particular focal length that you need to shoot tigers. I have shot tigers at all focal lengths from 50 mm to 600mm. But my most used focal length has been 70 – 400 mm. A zoom like a Nikon 80-400 or a Canon 100-400 can cover 90% of all tiger situations and I highly recommend one of these lenses simply because a tiger can turn up any time and at any distance around you. These lenses fail only in the lowest light situations when you absolutely need a faster lens.
I highly recommend a zoom over a prime for safaris simply for the flexibility offered by a zoom. So the new 200-500 F5.6 Nikon on one body plus a 70-200 zoom on another body is my favorite wild life combo for safaris currently. If money is no concern, then a 70-200 2.8 on one body and 200-400 F4.0 or even better, a 400 2.8 on another will also give a very high IQ safari system that will be effective in every low light situation that one is likely to encounter. As I said earlier if you have a fully packed gypsy, then a 80/100-400 zoom on a camera or at max a 70-200 plus 200-400/500 makes more sense as these lenses are much smaller and take less space. I usually recommend carrying a bean bag to rest the heavier lenses for shooting. Since the gypsy paths are very dusty, I do not recommend changing lenses in the field and do recommend carrying a cloth to cover your camera equipment when not being used or on the move. Another cloth to cover your mouth and nostrils is also recommended. Clothing should not be flashy and earthy drab colors are recommended. One can also use a monopod with a tilt-head with good effect on a safari. If you plan on carrying heavy lenses and without too many people, it is possible to remove all seats and have space for a tripod and heavy lenses on the gypsy floor. This needs prior planning and the Gypsy organizer needs to be told in advance about this.
A super telephoto like a 500 F4.0 or a 600 F4.0 800 F5.6 are not a must have but rather, good to have. A 400 2.8 is a much more useful lens for tigers and other large mammals instead of a 500 or a 600mm lens which are much better for birds and smaller animals.
Among super telephotos, it is quite tough to find a suitable bag for a 600 f4.0 or a 800 F5.6 that is airline carry on friendly. It is also quite tough to handle these lenses in the small confines of a gypsy especially with more than 4 people in a single gypsy, so all the more reason to keep your super long telephotos at home. A 400 2.8 is much shorter then either a 500 or a 600 or a 800 so is easier to carry and can really be useful in low light heavy canopied areas.
My favorite parks
Of all the parks I have visited, some of my favorite parks are as follows.
- Corbett : Easily the most picturesque and beautiful park in India. Tiger sightings are a bit difficult, but it has been quite kind to photographers with good sightings in the past year and half. Excellent for birding as well. Dhikala grassland will make you think you are in Africa. One place where I don’t get disappointed whether I see a tiger or not. The beauty of this place is just mind blowing.
- Kaziranga: Has another star i.e. the Indian One Horned Rhino that takes away the tiger’s thunder here. Tigers again not very easy to spot. Also home to the wild buffalo, elephants and many types of deer. Very good place to photograph Pallas and Grey headed fish eagles. Also home to to abundant adjutant storks.
- Kanha: Extremely pretty reserve. Has a good number of tigers and also home to the rare Hard Ground Barasingha. My most visited tiger reserve.
- Bandhavgarh: Home of Sita and Charger, the stars of numerous tiger documentaries. My favorite park as far a tiger photography is concerned. Rough and wild like no other park.
- Ranthambhore: Despite all my misgivings about the state of affairs and the way the park is being run, it remains my favorite for tiger sightings. Animals and birds are a lot more tolerant to human presence than any other park I know.
- Tadoba: Relatively small park which arguable is one of the best places to see wild royal bengal tigers in the world as of today. Sightings are almost guaranteed. If the tiger is all you care about, this is where you go.
- Pench: Spans across two states in India with different managements on both sides. I prefer the Madhya Pradesh side. Home of the original Jungle Book.
- Nagarhole/Kabini: Better for leopard sightings than tigers. Expensive as there are only a few options to stay and for safaris. Excellent for birds and elephants
There are also many other reserves that I have not been to like the Sundarbans, Satpura, Sariska, Buxa, Nameri, Umrer Karhandla, Melghat that do provide ample animals and birds including tigers to photograph.
Watch out for my blog entry on Tadoba in January 2016 where I plan to take my new super telephoto for the first time.
Dos and Dont’s on a safari:
Respect all wild life and way of the locals. Do not stress them to get that perfect shot. Tigers are not the only things to see in a tiger reserve. The sheer number and types of animals one gets to see in a tiger reserve is amazing.
Do not litter or make loud noises in the parks. Remember animals have the right of way in all forests and please allow them plenty of space and privacy especially to younger animals. Tigers may look docile and uninterested and they generally avoid crossing paths with you but remember that these animals are anything but docile and need to be respected.
Tiger Reserves are not zoos where you walk into an enclosure and you see your favorite animal. Tiger tracking and tiger tourism is all about patience and chance, so do not get disappointed if you do not see a tiger in your first few attempts. I have seen people blame the drivers and guides if they do not see tigers, please remember they are doing their best to show you one and it all a matter of luck to see one no matter how much you plan.