Ranthambore National Park
This national park contains 1334 sq km of wild jungle scrub hemmed in by rocky ridges. At its centre is the 10th-century Ranthambore Fort , and scattered nearby are ancient temples and mosques, crocodile-filled lakes, chhatris (cenotaphs) and hides. The park was a maharajas’ hunting ground till 1970 – a curious 15 years after it had become a sanctuary.
Uda Walawe National Park
With herds of elephants, wild buffalo, sambar deer and leopards, this Sri Lankan national park rivals the savannah reserves of Africa. In fact, for elephant-watching, Uda Walawe often surpasses many of the most famous East African national parks. The park, which centres on the 308.2-sq-km Uda Walawe Reservoir, is lightly vegetated but it has a stark beauty and the lack of dense vegetation makes game-watching easy. It’s the one park in Sri Lanka not to miss.
The entrance to the park is 12km from the Ratnapura–Hambantota road turn-off and 21km from Embilipitiya. Visitors buy tickets in a building a further 2km on. Most people take a tour organised by their guesthouse or hotel, but a trip with one of the 4WDs waiting outside the gate should be around Rs 3500 for a half-day for up to eight people with driver. Last tickets are usually sold at 5pm. A park guide is included in the cost of admission and these guys, who all seem to have hawk-like wildlife-spotting eyes, are normally very knowledgeable about the park and its animals. A tip is expected.
Besides elephants, sambar deer and wild buffalo (although most buffalo you’ll see in the park are domesticated), there are also mongooses, jackals, water monitor lizards, lots of crocodiles, sloth bears and the occasional leopard. There are 30 varieties of snakes and a wealth of birdlife – 210 species at last count; northern migrants join the residents between November and April.
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary
About 60km northeast of Munnar, this wildlife sanctuary hosts deer, leopards, elephants and the endangered grizzled giant squirrel. Trekking and tree house or hut accommodation within the sanctuary are available, as well as ecotour programs like river-trekking, cultural visits (two tribal groups inhabit the sanctuary) and waterfall treks (around ₹600 per person). For details contact the Forest Information Centre in Munnar. Buses from Munnar can drop you off at Chinnar (₹40, 1½ hours), or taxi hire for the day will cost around ₹1500.
Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary
Three rivers flow out to sea at Bhitarkanika forming a tidal maze of muddy creeks and mangroves. This is India’s second largest mangrove region after the Sunderbans, and most of the 672-sq-km delta forms this wonderful sanctuary, a significant biodiversity hotspot. The only way to get around most of the sanctuary is by boat, and the main reason to come is spot some of the hundreds of crocodiles that make these rivers their home.
There are three types: long-snouted gharials, short squat muggers, and the enormous estuarine crocodiles, or ‘salties’, which bask on mud flats before diving into the water for cover as your boat chugs past.
The best time to visit is from December to February, but you’ll see crocs all year round, and may also see monitor lizards, spotted deer, wild boar and all sorts of birds, including eight species of brilliantly coloured kingfishers. Herons arrive in early June and nest until early December, when they move on to Chilika Lake, while raucous open-billed storks have set up a permanent rookery here.
It’s also worth knowing that this area has the highest concentration of king cobras found anywhere in India, though hopefully you won’t meet any of those.
The park entrance is at the beautiful, but very poor, mud-hut village of Dangmal (pronounced Dang-ger-mal )
Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary
Ranakpur is a great base for exploring the hilly, densely forested Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, which extends over some 600 sq km to the northeast and southwest. It’s known for its leopards and wolves, although the chances of spotting antelopes, gazelles, deer and possible sloth bears are higher, especially from March to June. You will certainly see some of the sanctuary’s 200-plus bird species.
There’s a ticket office for the sanctuary right beside where the bus drops you off for the Jain temples, but the nearest of the sanctuary’s four entrances is 2km beyond here, near Shivika Lake Hotel.