There are hundreds of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India, which reflect the importance that the country places on nature and wildlife conservation. The variety of wildlife in India is incredibly diverse, and being able to view these animals and birds in their natural habitat is an experience of a lifetime. Different parks feature different animals, so it's a good idea to think about the particular types of wildlife you want to see and plan your trip accordingly. The following parks are the best places to go for a visual treat of tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceros, birds, leopards, crocodiles and even wild ass!
Bandhavgarh is not the most accessible national park in India, but it does have amongst the best chances of seeing a tiger in the wild (also high on the list are Ranthambore in Rajasthan near Delhi, and Tadoba in Maharashtra). For those who are longing to catch a glimpse of the great big cat, it's well worth the effort to go there. If you allow two days for safaris, you're likely to be successful. Many people see a tiger on the first safari.
Assam, in India's northeast region, offers plenty of appeal for wildlife lovers. The highlight is Kaziranga National Park, where you'll find the largest population of the prehistoric-looking one-horned rhinoceros in the world. Go on an elephant safari to spot them hiding in the wide expanse of grasslands. Another attraction is the birdlife -- both there and at Nameri National Park, which offers casual bird watching treks. If you want to get away from the crowds try the lesser-known Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary as an alternative.
Tigers aren't the only big cats that you try your luck at seeing in India. Gir Wildlife Sanctuary has the last wild Asiatic lions in the world. This breed of lion, which could once be found as far as Syria to the west and Bihar (in India) to the east, was almost hunted to extinction in the 1870s. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, the lion population is too big for the sanctuary. Apparently, lions sometimes even venture to the beaches of Diu! Three-hour jeep safaris will take you around the reserve. In addition to lions, there are almost 40 other animals there, including spotted deer, sambar, antelope, and gazelles.
Gujarat offers more still for wildlife enthusiasts. The harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Little Rann of Kutch, consisting mostly of dry thorny scrub, is home to the last of the Indian wild ass. There are around 2,000-3,000 of these notoriously untamable creatures within the 5,000 square kilometer Wild Ass Sanctuary. It's possible to go on a jeep safari to spot them. However, they're known to run fast -- an average of 50 kilometers an hour over long distances! If you're into birding, add Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary to your trip. It's one of the few areas where flamingos breed in the wild in India. However, more than 200 types of birds can be found there escaping the cold winter in other parts of the country.
Nagarhole gains its name from the snake-like river that winds its way through it. This park is a place of unspoiled wilderness, with serene forest, bubbling streams, and a tranquil lake. Nagarhole can be explored by jeep, elephant back, and boat. Visitors can also go trekking. It's not unusual to see herds of elephants on the river bank.
Keoladeo National Park (formerly Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary), located 50 kilometers from Agra, was once a duck hunting reserve of the maharajas. It has more than 350 species of birds, including the Palaearctic migratory waterfowl and a large congregation of non-migratory resident breeding birds. The park is open from sunrise until sunset all year round, although a third of it is often submerged during the monsoon season. The best time to visit is from August to November for resident breeding birds and November to March for migrant birds. Inside the park, it's possible to walk, ride bicycles, or take a cycle rickshaw or boat (when the water level is high). Stay at Royal Farm guest house and enjoy delicious home-cooked organic food, or splurge at the heritage Chandra Mahal Haveli.
Leopard: Kambeshwar Ji Leopard Sanctuary, Bera, Rajasthan
The village of Bera and its surroundings, in the Pali district of Rajasthan (between Udaipur and Jodhpur), are renowned for the many leopards that roam freely there. Jawai Dam Crocodile Sanctuary is also worth visiting for some of the biggest crocodiles that you'll ever see! You'll be able to spot birds, hyenas, hares, and foxes as well. The area is delightfully off the tourist trail but your hotel will arrange safaris. Stay at Castle Bera, or if you're not traveling on a budget, Jawai Leopard Camp. Also in the area, Bagheera's Camp Jungle Retreat is recommended.
If the prospect of seeing a leopard in the wild isn't exciting enough, try your luck at tracking the very elusive snow leopard in high altitude Hemis National Park! Located in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, its landscape is made up of stunning snow-capped peaks, alpine forest, and desert. Frozen Himalayas conducts guided trips, staying at campsites and local Ladakhi homestays. Another alternative for seeing the snow leopard is the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Ecosphere Spiti offers this Snow Leopard Trail.
One of Odisha's top attractions, the mangroves of Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary are home to India's largest population of endangered Indian saltwater crocodiles. There are more than 1,600 of them, including the largest crocodile in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It's a massive 23 feet long! Take a boat trip through the mangroves to see the crocodiles basking on the mudflats. Note that the sanctuary is closed from May 1 to July 31 each year, for the breeding season. Sand Pebbles Jungle Lodge is the best place to stay. Estuarine Village Resort is also recommended.
Manipur's Loktak Lake, the southeastern part of which falls within Keibul Lamjao National Park, is remarkable for being the world's only floating lake (it has a multitude of floating swampy islands called phumdi) as well as being the only place in the world where brow-antlered deer (sangai) live. These endangered deer are Manipur's state animal. They're often referred to as dancing deer because they tend to wobble when walking on the soft vegetation. Successful conservation efforts have resulted in their population increased from an estimated 14 in 1975, to 260 in 2016. To see them, take a boat into the national park's wetlands early in the morning. October to April is the best time to go. Companies like Seven Sisters Holidays in Manipur can arrange tours.
Also, read more about how to visit the Great Rann of Kutch.