I came to India for the first time in 2017 to attend a course in yoga and Ayurveda. I’d also always had a strange infatuation with tigers and found myself more and more interested in their issues and conservation. At the time, I was a vegan chef in Paris, busy running my own small catering and consulting company. My interest in discovering a new country, and the urge of seeing a wild tiger with my own eyes led me to extend my trip by an entire month as a solo traveller. And little did I know that this extension would change my life forever.
At that time I had no real knowledge of the safari industry. Armed only with a small budget, an entry-level camera and child-like curiosity, I visited my first two tiger reserves – Jim Corbett and Ranthambhore.
The first few days consisted of rides taking in the surroundings with increasing amazement and marvel. By the second day though, the object of my quest, the Holy Grail of any wildlife photographer, appeared right in front of me: my first wild tiger.
From that moment on, I was hooked. It wasn’t just because of the tiger, it was the thrill of waking up before dawn, of getting ready to enter the forest and read its signs, in the hope of witnessing its sheer magic. It’s bizarre how your existence can take a whole different turn, in just the span of a few minutes.
Once back in Paris, I was already making plans to come back to India, this time on a trip geared solely toward wildlife.
So I booked a ticket and dedicated my trip to tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries as a solo traveler. I learned Hindi to be able to communicate with the guides and drivers of the park as well as with the local communities; I upgraded my photographic equipment to be able to capture the images that were constantly parading in my mind. I was on a mission to keep discovering these majestic creatures – and that’s exactly what I did.
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After some time, I realized being a visitor wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to live in a Tiger Reserve. It’s what led me to Kanha, Madhya Pradesh, or as I know it, the most beautiful place on Earth. I volunteered with an NGO involving local communities in conservation and by the following season I was working as a naturalist and guide for a wildlife resort, sharing my passion with people visiting the forest.
Now, more than 600 safaris and innumerable sightings later, loads of firsthand experience, two lockdowns (one of which spent entirely in the jungle) I am running my own wildlife tours to the main wildlife parks of India. And even now, after so many encounters, my heart still skips a beat when I hear the guide and driver uttering the magic words during the safari: “Tiger, tiger!”
The states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are the ultimate tiger country: huge stretches of pristine wildlife habitat, with rare human encroachment. Between the cities of Nagpur, to the South, and Jabalpur, to the North, the jungles that have been immortalised by Kipling gloriously bloom under the eyes of the traveller: Tadoba, Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Panna. All of them havewith their own story to tell. It’s why I put together a few of my favorite reserves to catch the tiger in the wild, in all its majesty, so that you too can experience the once in a lifetime feeling.
Kanha Tiger Reserve
When it comes to natural beauty, it’s hard to beat the dreamy landscape of Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. As one of the oldest reserves in the country, this park is managed with exemplary uprightness by the local Forest Department. It’s no place for loud crowds but the ideal destination for serious wildlife lovers.
Quite remote, Kanha is famous for its deciduous Sal tree forest as well as its wide meadows and grasslands.
Home to a healthy population of tigers, Kanha also hosts an impressive variety of other animals with endangered hard ground Barasingha deer, wild dogs, sloth bears, leopards and many other species inhabit the reserve.
Winters in Kanha are the stuff of dreams. Here one can experience a dreamy morning mist rising on the meadows and lakes. Be aware, it gets extremely chilly, with temperatures sometimes dropping below freezing.
If visiting the breakfast point inside the Kanha zone, don’t miss out on the steaming hot samosas with spicy green chutney from the park canteen.
Pench Tiger Reserve
Of all the most famous tiger reserves of central India, Pench is the only one that lies between two states. Unravelling down the gentle slopes of the Satpura-Maikal hills, it spreads on the banks of the Pench River, between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Pench Madhya Pradesh is the abode of tigers whose names are written in the Pantheon of cats, such as Collarwali, the tigress with the highest number of surviving cubs in the world.
The less visited area, on the Maharashtra side, has always greeted me with superb sightings such as the tigers with no name, families with young but already fierce cubs, and curious ones peeking through the grasslands.
The foodie’s advice: don’t miss the fresh aloo bonda (potato fritters stuffed with spices) served with chutney while having breakfast at the center point.
Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve
With an incredible number of resident tigers both in the core and in the buffer zones, Tadoba is undoubtedly one of India’s tiger capitals. Nestled in the heart of Maharashtra, it is easily connected to all parts of the state.
While it’s a relatively small area, the Tadoba landscape is easily recognisable thanks to its red soil, bamboo forest and iconic lakes.
Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve
Probably the most famous park of Madhya Pradesh, Bandhavgarh ranks amongst the best places to see tigers in the wild. A Sal forest dominated by an ancient fort on top of a hill, its core zone is divided into three distinct areas for you to explore. Like most of India’s Tiger Reserves, Bandhavgarh was once a private game hunting reserve belonging to the local Maharaja.
As you know by now, I consider breakfast in the forest one of the best parts of the safari experience. Don’t miss the tiny food stalls at the breakfast point of Tala zone, serving hot chai and fritters.
By exploring the most pristine tiger habitats of India, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the striped animal and all it represents. The tiger acts as an ambassador for wildlife conservation, as the noblest protector of its land, and of all its denizens.