India is rich in natural wonders, blessed with enchanting landscapes and an amazing variety of flora and fauna, the likes of which inspired Rudyard Kipling to create the Jungle Book more than 120 years ago. Indeed, India's 80 national parks and 441 wildlife sanctuaries are home to an astonishing array of species, from Royal Bengal tigers and one horned rhinos to Asian elephants, Gangetic dolphins and more than 1,250 species of birds including kingfishers and cormorants, hawks, kites and eagles.
The country's astounding biodiversity is due, in part, to a unique topography that ranges from steaming lowland jungles to the alpine forests, meadows and grasslands of the Himalayas. Sadly, however, a steadily increasing human population in need of both land and resources has driven many vulnerable species to the verge of extinction. Fortunately, the situation is improving and since the 1970s organisations such as Project Tiger have worked tirelessly to halt this decline. Vast swathes of previously unprotected countryside, particularly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, have become much needed sanctuaries for some of the country’s most endangered animals.
Ranthambore National Park
A former hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur, this 400 sq. km region of jungled hills and peaceful, crocodile-filled lakes is India’s most popular national park. Head out on safari along Ranthambore National Park's forest trails, taking in crumbling ruins and a 10th-century fort as you go in search of what is Rajasthan's largest tiger population. As the poster child for Indian tiger conservation, the big cats are understandably the main draw, but there's much else to see here, too, from wild boar and sambar to langur and leopard. And, as the home to some of the country's finest national park accommodation, your days in the wild will be beautifully balanced by the likes of gourmet dining and spa treatments.
Kanha National Park
Indian bison, deer, antelope, Indian leopards, a burgeoning population of tigers and around 300 species of birds – from bee-eaters to hornbills – make their homes in this vast and beautiful national park and tiger reserve, located in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh. It's also something of a haven for India's plant species, with over 1,000 species of flowering plants found amid its forests and meadows.
Bandhavgarh National Park
This small national park in Madhya Pradesh is perhaps the best place to spot a tiger in India. At the last census in 2014, 68 tigers were counted here, all living within the 453 sq km territory that comprises the reserve's central zone. Stay a couple of days, and your chances of an encounter are high. But, if your lucks out, there's also a healthy population of leopards – although these are harder to spot than the tigers – as well as deer, wild boar, langur and some 250 species of birds.
Panna National Park
Spot crocodiles, sloth bears, leopards and more than 200 species of birds in this national park, located within the Vindhyan mountain range in Madhya Pradesh. Tigers are making a comeback here, too, having been reintroduced to the park in 2009. Now, there are through to be more than 35 individuals in what is a real environmental success story. The park is also just 30 kilometres from the Khajuraho Temples complex – a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising some 25 nagara-style monuments, dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries.
Pench National Park
The least visited of Madhya Pradesh’s four national parks, Pench is said to have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Its hills and valleys, shrouded in teak forest, are home to tiger, leopard, wild dog, sambar and chital. And, despite the chances of seeing a tiger being small in comparison to Bandhavgarh and Kanha, the sheer beauty of the place, and the comparative lack of tourists, makes visiting worthwhile.
Kaziranga National Park
One horned rhinos, wild buffalo, Asian elephants, Gangetic dolphins and a small number of rarely seen tigers all inhabit this stunning national park, located on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the eastern state of Assam. Yes, it's remote, but the lack of any sizeable human population makes it a joy to explore. Pair a stay here with a cruise on the Brahmaputra for the ultimate off-the-beaten-track experience.