Welcome to the jungle: it's a very Indian entity. The word derives from Sanskrit jangala, meaning uncultivated ground or scrubland, and was adopted by British traders in the mid-18th century. Thereafter it also acquired associations with steamy forest and wild beasts. India contains all the above natural elements in abundance, of course. It isn't only home to a good 17 per cent of the world's humanity – a great gamut of creatures inhabits its diverse jungle lands. Indeed, from the high slopes of the Himalayas to the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, the swamps of the Sunderbans in Bengal and the forests of the Western Ghats, this vast country supports a kaleidoscope of biodiversity.
There are 97 national parks and a good 440 wildlife sanctuaries. Some, such as Periyar National Park in Kerala, are easily accessible to tourists; others including Mouling National Park in the north eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, are challengingly remote. In many, elegant, black-faced langurs and thuggish rhesus macaque monkeys are ubiquitous; spotted deer (or chital), too. All of them are meals for a variety of predators. Meantime, even those who have never felt moved to pick up a pair of binoculars at home are inevitably entranced by India's bird-life, from eagles and hornbills to kingfishers, paradise flycatchers and scarlet minivets – the poetry of whose name is matched by the dazzling plumage of the males.
Across the country the Zoological Survey of India (zsi.gov.in) has recorded 92,037 species of fauna – a figure that includes four species of spider and 22 of frogs that were discovered only last year. It also includes 57 critically endangered animal species, ranging from the psychedelic-blue gooty tarantula to the pygmy hog being bred in captivity in Assam. The list of endangered animals in India runs from Asiatic bear, primarily inhabiting Himalayan regions, and Asiatic lion, now surviving only in Gujarat (see "Lion's share") to leopard (common, snow and clouded species) and wild buffalo – mostly found in Assam and with a recovery programme under way in Udanti sanctuary in the central state of Chhattisgarh. And then, of course, there's the tiger. On the last official count (in 2010), there were 1,706 Bengal tigers left in India.
As the release of Ang Lee's film version of Yann Martel's Life of Pi shows, our fascination with tigers is undimmed – and it would be impossible to overstate the tiger's importance to India's tourist industry. Yet this summer, tiger tourism was effectively banned in India. That was thanks to a ruling the Supreme Court made in response to a petition filed last year by an environmental campaigner. After much lobbying by the tourist industry and conservationists, the ban was lifted in mid-October. India's 41 tiger parks are now open again, although entry regulations are being redefined, to be ratified in April.
At Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park – among the most celebrated of the tiger sanctuaries – one of the key considerations is tourist volume. "We're reassessing the carrying capacity of vehicles to determine how many people can potentially look at an animal at the same time," says Yusuf Ansari, conservationist and host at the stylish tented camp Sher Bagh (00 91 11 4606 7608; sujanluxury.com) just outside the park. He adds that the known population of 56 tigers in the greater park area has swelled with a number of cubs this year. The hotel features as part of a week's private tour offered by Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk) from £2,150 per person, including flights, two nights in Delhi, and four nights and game drives at Ranthambore.
David Mills, managing director of tour operator Naturetrek, says that now is an excellent time to make a tiger trip. Because of the summer ban, many visitors cancelled their bookings so "the reserves are likely to be unusually free of tourists in the coming months". Among the small group trips arranged by Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) is a new "Tiger Direct" nine-day holiday combining Pench and Kanha parks (the latter was the inspiration for Kipling's Jungle Book) in Madhya Pradesh. The price from £2,095pp includes flights from Heathrow to Mumbai as well as all accommodation and game drives. Alternatively, Explore (0845 291 4541; explore.co.uk) offers a shorter six-day group "Tiger, Tiger" Trip in Ranthambore from £499pp, including two nights' accommodation in Delhi, train transfers, accommodation at Ranthambore, four game drives and a visit to Ranthambore Fort (£1,192 with flights).
Slightly smaller than their African cousins and with a more orangey tint to their fur, the world's only Asiatic lions live in Gujarat's Gir National Park in western India. In the mid 1980s, the population of this big cat was just 239; now there are more than 410. Numbers, in fact, are starting to be too great for the park and relocation of some of the animals is becoming necessary. See them with Cox & Kings (0845 527 9047; coxandkings.co.uk) which features the park as part of a 13‑night private tour of Gujarat from £4,050pp with flights from Heathrow to Mumbai, excursions, accommodation and two nights at the Lion Safari Camp in Gir.
With stupendous thickets of bamboo growing among teak, silver oak and sandalwood, Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka is one of the most striking reserves in southern India. And it is probably the best place to see wild elephants too.
There are an estimated 800 here – along with gaur (an Indian type of bison), wild dog, the odd tiger, leopard and much more. Audley Travel (01993 838300; audleytravel.com) offers a 15-day "Southern India Explored" itinerary that includes two days in Nagarhole as well as visits to Mysore, Sultans Battery and Ooty. The trip costs from £3,055pp which covers flights from Heathrow to Bangalore, private car with a driver/guide, and comfortable accommodation.
River and rhinos
The mighty Brahmaputra river is home to rare Ganges dolphin that move like quicksilver and occasionally arch right out of the water. (Blink, though, and you'll miss them.)
On the western bank of this great waterway, about halfway along its course through Assam, is the Kaziranga National Park. This watery world of lakes and marshes is inhabited by more than 1,500 one-horned rhino, as well as wild buffalo, otters and a fabulous range of birds. Happily, there's a great way of seeing all these creatures: the Assam Bengal Navigation Company (assambengalnavigation.com) operates cruises in atmospheric river boats that stop at the park.
Noble Caledonia (020-7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk) offers these cruises as part of a 17-night package to the Assam region. The price from £4,795pp covers flights from Heathrow to Kolkata via Dubai and onward air travel to Guwahati, all accommodation including 14 nights onboard the boat, most meals and game excursions in Kaziranga in 4x4s and on elephant back.
The rare snow leopards of the Himalayas are exceptional athletes, able to leap over great mountain ravines, making them extremely difficult to track. However, in February and March next year, Steppes Discovery (01285 643333; steppesdiscovery.co.uk) is taking two small groups on quests to look for snow leopard in the dramatic terrain of Ladakh in the north-west. Led by experts who have worked with BBC and National Geographic film crews, the trips are accommodated in a comfortable campsite from which you visit remote monasteries as well as make excursions to find snow leopard in Hemis National Park. The cost of £2,995pp includes flights from Heathrow to Delhi and onward air travel to Leh, all accommodation and guidance.
Hero of Uttarakhand
Jim Corbett, naturalist, author and conservationist, was a colonel in the British Indian Army who was born in India in 1875 and lived there until 1947. In 1936, he helped establish the country’s first national park in what is now the state of Uttarakhand in the north. Corbett National Park, above, is a little smaller than Britain’s New Forest and it backs on to other wildlife sanctuaries: together they form a vast protected area that contains a remarkable range of flora as well as tigers, elephants, sloth bears, hog deer and more. A five-night stay is offered by TransIndus (020-8566 3739; transindus.co.uk) as part of a week’s package costing from £1,898pp. The price covers flights from Heathrow to Delhi, two nights in the capital, transfers, accommodation at Jim’s Jungle Retreat in Corbett park and all game drives.
Book your game drives well ahead of your visit, advises Hashim Tyabji, former chief warden of Bandhavgarh National Park and owner of Forsyth’s Lodge (forsythlodge.com), above, on the edge of the Satpura Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The number of vehicles admitted to the reserves/parks at any one time is strictly limited. Bookings are made through tour operators (in the UK or locally) and hotels. Wear neutral colours, Hashim adds – many safaris are made in open-sided 4x4s or on elephant back, and bright colours will stand out particularly on these trips. Carry binoculars; even small ones will transform your experience. Speak softly and avoid sudden or quick movements. And, he emphasises, don’t pressure your guide and driver to conjure a tiger: you will see much more if they are relaxed and not feeling they have to race around. A five‑night stay at Forsyth’s is offered as part of a week’s trip with Indian Explorations (01993 822443; indianexplorations.com). The price from £1,929pp includes flights from Heathrow to Delhi and onward air travel to Bhopal as well as all accommodation, most meals and game drives, guided walks and motor-boat safaris.