Few parks have taken the Indian wildlife world by storm in recent times like the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The story of how Tadoba metamorphosed from a virtually unknown park to one with the highest tiger sightings is as unique as its rules: It is the country’s only reserve that does not allow mobile phones (as of December 2018). Initially, this was a setback for someone like me, who depends heavily on her phone as an all-in-one audio and video recording device, but it was precisely this restriction that allowed me to soak in a wilderness experience, gadget-free, after ages.
In 1955, an area of 125 sq km was designated as the protected Tadoba National Park. This was subsequently merged with the neighbouring Andhari National Park in 1986 along with other forest patches, birthing the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in 1995. The local tribal god “Taru” gave the river Tadoba its name, and together with the Andhari river — that also drains from the north to the south through the forest — the reserve got its name. Thirty years ago, it took local jungle expert and my guide, Lahu Raut, years to spot his first tiger; today visitors rarely return without seeing the striped cat on at least one of three safaris.
Spread over around 1,725 sq km, Tadoba is Maharashtra’s largest national park. The landscape is divided into three major forest ranges: the Tadoba north range, Kolsa south range, and the Moharli range wedged between the two. All are accessible to tourists via twelve gates, of which Moharli, Kolara, and Navegaon are the popular ones near the core area, and Devada and Agarzani are favoured near the buffer area. The core area is primarily open grasslands like Jamni and Navegaon, that developed after the successful relocation of villages from the heart of the forest to its fringes. In stark contrast, the buffer is dense with bamboo and is known for its tiger sightings. These near-impenetrable patches give way to open meadows every now and then, the largest being the one formed jointly by Khatora and Parasgaon. It is dotted with a variety of mammals and birds — herds of spotted deer grazing serenely, ibis flying overhead, black storks wading through the waters like cautious commuters, and wild boar foraging in the distance. This mesmerizing setting, straight out of a painting, is made even more enchanting by the Tadoba and Irai lakes, and the Telari and Panerponi waterholes that dot the forest.
Thirty years ago, hardly see any tigers were spotted in Tadoba as the dense blanket of bamboo made sightings difficult. Today, thanks to policy changes and strict implementation, Tadoba is known for its tremendous tiger sightings. The relocation of villages has allowed tigers to explore and resettle in new areas that have been assimilated into the park. A widespread anti-poaching patrol, and incorporation of communities into the fold of conservation have been as vital as a quality forest with a healthy prey population. All these factors have contributed to tigers moving around freely in a wider area, mating with multiple tigresses, and resulting in a thriving population.
Tigers are the biggest attraction of Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, but the park has over 65 key mammal species, and over 300 birds. It’s easy to spot young sambars rubbing the velvet off their antlers on tree trunks, occasional groups of the Indian gaur looking dapper in their white “socks”, marsh crocodiles emerging to bask on the banks of the Tadoba Lake, and motley birds both resident and migratory. Watch tree hollows closely for Indian scops owls meditating, and naked treetops for predatory shikras. We witnessed a rare, territorial face-off between a black-shouldered kite and a white-eyed buzzard, and lucked out with a sloth bear sighting as well. Don’t shy away from the less popular safari zones; you might just spot wild dogs, or a ruddy mongoose scurrying across the road.
Most wildlife experiences in Tadoba differ from season to season. The national park is open from October 15 to June 30. It remains partially closed during the monsoon, from July 1 to October 14, when only certain zones can be explored by jeep.
April to June: These are the hottest months of Central India, but also the time when wildlife is easiest to spot, especially around water holes.
October to November: Right after the monsoon when the park reopens, the forest is lush and verdant. This is a good time to observe the young, many of whom are born in the rainy period.
December to March: The winter months are the most pleasant though morning safaris can get pretty cold. This is a great time for spotting winter migratory birds.
SAFARI COSTS & TIMINGS
Safari: There are jeep safaris twice a day, from 6.30-10.30 am and from 2-6 pm. The forest department also offers boat safaris on the Irai Lake at these times.
Entry: Carrying government-approved identification is necessary to enter the park. Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve has a complicated system of charges for safaris. Various fees are applicable: park entry charges, online, vehicle, guide, and camera fees. These vary according to how many days before the safari you book, as opposed to the choice of zones (the safaris here are free range) and on whether it is a weekday or weekend. Expect to pay about Rs 12,000 (for a group of six) if you book 120-60 days ahead. After that, the prices drop depending on the seat availability, and shoot up again three days before the safari, and during weekends and holidays.
The park only allows 45 jeeps per safari slot so make sure you book well in advance. The boat safari costs Rs 3,500 (guide and camera fee additional). Canters are run by the forest department in the core area for Rs 400 per person (available on first come, first served basis).
Booking: Bookings can be made at www.mahaecotourism.gov.in or via your accommodation. Most wildlife lodges organise drives for in-house guests for a small convenience fee.
Nagpur is the closest air and rail head for Tadoba National Park (150 km/3 hr). Cabs can be hired from here (starting Rs 3,500 for a small car). Alternatively, one can take a bus from Nagpur till Varora or Chandrapur (about 50-odd km from the park); it is advisable to arrange a pickup for the accommodation from here.
Tiger Trails: This jungle lodge was the first commercial property at Tadoba. It offers a comfortable stay with its mix of cottages and tents, simple but delicious local meals, and a great wildlife experience. The father-son conservationist duo running the place is largely responsible for the success story of Tadoba, and it is their stories that bring the place alive. Situated near the Khutwanda gate, which leads directly into the core, makes this an exclusive experience. Doubles start at Rs 19,000 per night with meals.
MTDC: The state-run government guesthouse near the Moharli gate offers basic but clean accommodation and is a great option for budget travellers. Doubles start at Rs 1,500 per night, room only.
The eastern edge of the park has plenty of mid-range to high-end options to choose from. Be prepared, though, for the rush at the Kolara gate. Accommodations at Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve do not serve alcohol as Chandrapur is a dry district.