The Tiger is an iconic symbol of conservation. It is a heavily muscled, powerful predator that stalks and ambushes large prey, camouflaged by its stripy coat. Unlike other cats, Tigers are good swimmers and often cool off in lakes and streams during the heat of the day. Nine different subspecies of this carnivore are recognized, three of which became extinct in the latter part of the 20th century : the Bali , Javan and Caspian Tigers. The remaining subspecies are the Siberian, South China, Sumatran, Indochinese, Malayan and Bengal Tigers. Their characteristic dark, vertical stripes patterning the body vary in their width, spacing, and length, and whether they are single or double stripes. The pattern and distribution of the stripes is unique to each Tiger. Poaching and habitat loss have occurred throughout much of the Tiger's range and is now severely threatening its survival; as land becomes rapidly developed to meet the increasing demands of the Asian population, Tiger populations become isolated in remaining fragments of wilderness and will ultimately die out.
India is one of the most interesting and last remaining countries to view and photograph Tigers. It is a land of controlled chaos, teaming with sights and sounds, plus a profusion of cultures and races. The country is also rich in other wildlife, with hundreds of species of birds, plus Leopards, Asiatic Lions, Rhinos, Elephants, Bears, Gaurs and Wild Dogs, just to name a few. Visiting India is quite an exhausting flight for those who live in North America. It takes about 2 days, including layover to get there by plane. From Western Europe, it is about an 8 hour flight. Careful planning is required in order to get the most out of this long journey.
The two central Indian National Parks of Bandhavgarh and Kanha offer the best opportunity to view and photograph Tigers in their natural habitat. The duration of time spent in each park should be at least two to three full days to maximize one's chances of seeing Tigers and other wildlife. Safaris in open top Jeeps, along with elephant-back rides, help track Tigers and other animals. The parks' regulations require a guide to accompany any vehicle entering. The guides are generally very helpful and is a resource in tracking and finding wildlife although it is recommended to bring your own expert guide, if possible.
Bandhavgarh National Park, famous for its 'high'density of Tigers, contains 22 species of mammals and 250 species of birds, including Leopards, Jungle Cat, Muntjac and the only four-horned Antelope in the world, the Chausingha. Hemmed in by the Vindhyan mountain ranges, the Park is located in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Covering an area of 437 sq km, the Park encompasses dense forest, open meadows, wetlands and steep ridges. The Park is named after an ancient fort located in the area. It was once the hunting reserve of the kings of Rewa.
Kanha National Park, with its lush sal and bamboo forests, grassy meadows and ravines, provided inspiration to Rudyard Kipling for his famous novel, "The Jungle Book". The Park is located in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, came into being in 1955 and forms the core of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, created in 1974 under Project Tiger. The Park's landmark achievement is the preservation of the rare hardground Swamp Deer (Barasingha), saving it from near extinction. Stringent conservation programs for the overall protection of the Park's fauna and flora, makes Kanha one of the most well maintained National Parks in Asia.
The parks are opened from November to June, although the best months to visit are between November to April. The temperatures in the earlier months are a bit more comfortable but to maximize sightings, March and April are the best, due to the warmer weather but May and June may be too hot for most visitors. Deer and other prey animals are forced to visit waterholes more often during the hotter months and this offers plenty of ambush opportunities for Tigers. Safaris start early with the Jeeps queueing up at the park entrance starting around 6 AM. Each trip usually lasts about 3 hours and the mid afternoon is a good time for the second safari. The temperature in the Parks can be very cold in the early mornings and gets warmer and hotter as the day progresses. The roads are unpaved, rough and dusty. Bumpy rides in the Jeep are guaranteed and part of the fun, with no extra charge.
No one is permitted to wander off on foot inside the parks and the Jeeps are small so a tripod or monopod is of little use. The vegetation is thick and the Tigers are experts in concealment. They can be almost 'invisible' in the thick jungle, just a few feet from you. I generally prefer to use a zoom lens since there is no telling where they may pop up but the best combo is to have two cameras ready. I use the Canon 7D with the 400mm f/4 DO lens and the Canon 1D MK IV with the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS or the 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS lens. Visit the Equipment page on my website to see these gear. Since the lighting is usually fair to poor, I set the apertures of the lenses wide open with ISO setting of 800 and going all the way to 3,200 if required.
It is truly a rare privilege for any photographer to come face to face with a Bengal Tiger in the wild. I came across this one year old cub and we exchanged eye contact for a little while before he disappeared into the bush. It was a very memorable moment for me and I will cherish it for a very long time. Visit the Tiger page on my website to see more exciting photos from India and watch the slide show on my website as well.