What makes a wildlife safari in India different to one in Africa

Key differences between a safari in India and a safari in Africa.

This is a question that I get asked a lot.

Regular visitors to Africa enquire about visiting India and want to know how the experience will compare.

To say it will be the same is simply not true. A wildlife safari in India is a very different type of trip to one in Africa, and here’s why.
Please note that these are my own opinions and not everyone will agree.

1 – Wildlife

The wildlife is different. Of course it is, I hear you say, that is why we want to go there.

It’s not just different, it behaves differently too.

Visitors to Africa are used to seeing animals everywhere. Even when the predators are not in sight there are other animals see; elephants, buffalo, antelope, zebras, giraffes. And when the predators put in an appearance they are – nowadays – often very relaxed in the presence of vehicles and will happily linger so you can take photos.

The reserves in India are mostly forested, with some areas of open grassland. The deer and antelope stay in the forests for most of the day, keeping out of the sun; quite often the only animals you’ll see roaming around are langurs and rhesus macaques.

The predators usually stay hidden until the sun goes down.
The big draw is tigers; that’s what most visitors want to see, but apart from a few exceptions, the tigers are shy and don’t enjoy the company of tourists.

When you see how Indian tourists behave this is not surprising.

Most often tiger sightings are fleeting or at quite a distance. Unless you get lucky.

Other species like leopards and sloth bears are also shy and will rarely appear before dusk.

Having said that India does have a terrific variety of species.

15 species of wild cats

50% of the World’s bear species are found in India – including the Indian Sloth Bear.

various deer and antelope (Africa only has antelope)

1250 species of birds

2 – Habitat

As has been alluded to above, Indian reserves are almost all forested. The trees are tall, either Teak or Sal. The Central Indian reserves, which are the best ones for tiger sightings, have no elephants. Even in the reserves – like Corbett – where there are elephants, the damage they do to the forest is minimal compared to the devastation wreaked by African elephants.

This forestation means that animals can be just a few metres away from you, yet be completely hidden. The birds love to perch right in the high canopy too. You can see them, but getting good photos is a challenge.

When all visitors hope to find is a tiger escaping the heat of the day by basking in a pool of water. In the height of summer these sightings to occur, but for most of the year the tigers just rest in the forest during the day and come out at dusk to drink.

3 – Tiger Reserves – entry permits

Most wildlife parks are designated as Tiger Reserves. Visiting a Tiger Reserve is quite a bit more complicated than visiting an African park.

In Corbett, for example, the reserve is divided into zones, and your entry permit is for a single zone only, meaning that you can only enter through the designated gate for the zone you are visiting.

In other parks, like Pench & Satpura in Central India, only a small portion of the park is open for tourists to visit, less than 25%.

On the plus side, there is a limit to the number of vehicles that are allowed into each area at any one time. So that in Corbett, for example, although there will be a lot of jeeps in the park, they will be spread out in the different zones.

As a visitor, you need to ensure that you have booked all your game drives in advance, otherwise you won’t get into the park at all.

Another complication is that when you buy an entry permit for the park, it is only for that one game drive. If you want to visit in the morning and the afternoon, you need to pay for 2 visits.

Unless you have booked to stay at one of the government run guest houses within the park, in most park, you cannot remain in the park during the day. You must leave and then come back again. Ranthambore is an exception to this rule.

In some cases it is possible to get a permit to stay in the reserve for the whole day BUT (a) you are still not allowed to drive around between 11am and 3pm, you must stay within the confines of a government rest house, and (b) the permit for a full day costs about 6 times more than a normal game drive. (that’s 3 times more than taking a morning and afternoon drive).

4 – Naturalists

In India, what we call a guide in Africa is referred to as a naturalist. All tourists should be accompanied by a naturalist. The naturalists are usually employed by the lodge you are staying at. There is no proper training or licensing system so although there are some outstanding naturalists, there are also some very poor ones; jeep jockeys.

In addition to the naturalist, every vehicle entering a reserve must have on board a Forest Department Guide.

All India’s national parks / tiger reserves fall under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. A Forest Guide is an employee of the Forest Department who takes up a seat in your vehicle. They too have no qualifications but insisting that one accompanies every vehicle does guarantee employment for quite a lot of people.

5 – Game Drives

Game drives are carried out in small Indian built Maruti Gypsy jeeps. These are a local version of the Suzuki SJ413 jeep, a design that has remained unchanged since the 1980s.

In your little Gypsy jeep, you have yourselves, your naturalist and a forest guide. And, in Satpura, you also have a driver.

In other parks the naturalist will drive, but in Satpura it is mandatory to have a driver from the Forest Department.

The Gypsy has 2 rows of seats and can comfortably accommodate 4 tourists – groups of Indians will quite happily cram 9 people into the jeep, but we think that is not very conducive to photography.

We put a maximum of 3 people per jeep. Even so, in Satpura there could be 6 people altogether.

Like Africa, it is worth booking a private jeep. That way you know who you’ll be travelling with. because the jeeps are small the extra cost for a private vehicle is not exhorbitent.

6 – Other activities

In most parks, game drives are the only permitted activity.

However, almost all parks are surrounded by a buffer zone – a buffer between the core wildlife area and the surrounding human habitation. The buffer area is often much larger than the reserve itself. At Satpura for example, the core reserve is 1450km sq, but the total protected area including the buffer is 4500km sq.

In many – if not most – instances the buffer zones are as fruitful for game viewing as the core reserve area.

The advantage of the buffer zones is that you can do walking.

In Satpura, my favourite reserve, the area encompassed by the buffer zone and the reserve is 3 times as large as the core reserve and it is possible to do walking and also to do canoeing. Of course you must be accompanied by a forest guide whatever you do.

walking also gives you your best chance of seeing a tiger without the attendant circus

7 – Visitor Behaviour

As has been mentioned earlier, the big draw card for visitors to Indian wildlife parks is the tiger. It’s what most visitors have come to see.

In the case of Indian visitors is is usually the only thing they have come to see.

What this means is that when a tiger is sighted, everybody in that zone just drives straight to it. Then they start jockeying for position to get as close as they can.

And they are not subtle about it. They shout at each other constantly. The chances of finding a tiger and keeping it to yourself are slim. If you thought the traffic by the Mara river during migration season is bad, this is worse.

I am as keen to see tigers as the next man, but I could not tolerate the circus that each sighting becomes.

However, if you are a birding enthusiast the good news is that most Indians have no interest in them whatsoever so if you are anywhere except where there is a tiger you may not see anyone else at all.

8 – Accommodation

As has been mentioned, all reserves are government run. The only accommodation within the reserve is government guest houses. With one or two exceptions, these offer very basic self catering accommodation; but they do allow you to stay inside the park.

All other accommodation is on the periphery of the reserve and, as you’d expect, some is very good and some is vary basic.

The way that we choose our accommodation is on the quality of the naturalists, and there are only a small number of places that have really good naturalists, probably no more than 2 or 3 lodges per reserve.

9 – Cost

Compared with African parks and lodges, visiting Indian Tiger reserves is not expensive. Park entry fees are not exorbitant and lodges tend to be cheaper too,

10 – Seasons

Although the wildlife is present throughout the year, animal behaviour does vary according to the time of year and the heat. The summer months are reckoned to be the best time to see tigers because they will lounge in water during the hot part of the day, but this is also the time of year when sightings get very crowded.

If you are a birder, then check which species will be in the parks you plan to visit at the time you’ll be there. There are large variations between the summer migrants and the winter migrants.

11 – Choosing your reserves

As with Africa, it is better to visit fewer places and stay longer in each than to hop from one reserve to another.

Within Central India there are several Tiger reserves, but they all have pretty much the same species. You are more likely to see them by spending time in one reserve than chopping and changing. All the time you spend travelling between reserves is time you won’t spend game viewing.

I’d recommend Satpura. The reason for this is that in addition to tigers, it is the park with the best chance of sighting leopards and sloth bears. It is also a park where you can go walking and when the water levels permit you can also do canoeing and motorboat trips.

Usually – usually – Satpura has a lot of water. There is a dam downstream which causes the river to widen into a lake that attracts a large variety of shore birds and waders. Rains in 2017 were very poor and a lot of the river water was diverted upstream from Satpura for irrigation. To make matters worse, at about the same time, the dam was opened. The lake was almost drained and where it was necessary to cross the river by boat to get into the reserve, you can currently walk across. It has never been this bad before and – fingers crossed, it will not be again.

Pench has a good record for tiger sightings, but the other predators are harder to see.
Bandhavgarh and Kanha offer a similar habitat to Pench.

If you want to combine a wildlife reserve with cultural sightseeing, then Rantahmbore is a good choice because reaching it doesn’t take you far from the main cities of Jaipur and Agra. However, it does get very crowded.

For general wildlife viewing in Northern India the best reserve to visit is Corbett Tiger Reserve.
The variety of habitats within Corbett means that you’re unlikely to get bored; tiger sightings are high and the variety of bird species is vast. Indians do visit Corbett in large numbers but, with a bit of planning it is usually possible to miss the crowds.

If you want to see the One Horned Rhinoceros, then Kazirange National Park is the place to go as it is home to almost 70% of the World’s population.