2022 is the Year of the Tiger: Here are 15 places to see them ethically in the wild

Jan 4, 2022

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With the Tiger King, Joe Exotic, currently serving a 22-year sentence for murder for hire and animal abuse, and fewer than 3,900 tigers left in the wild worldwide, tiger tourism is at a crossroads. Those who dream of seeing these gracious and elegant cats in their natural habitat are more motivated than ever, while the world’s consciousness has been raised about what constitutes humane treatment of one of the most revered species on Earth.

There’s no time like the present to see them — especially since the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar begins on Feb. 1, 2022.

Of all the big cat species, tigers have perhaps been the most drastically affected by a host of issues, from hunting and poaching to climate change and loss of habitat, with the result being that three of the original nine tiger subspecies are already extinct.

Of the six subspecies remaining, two — the Sumatran and South China — are now listed as critically endangered. In fact, no South China tiger has been seen in the wild in more than two decades and fewer than 100 remain in zoos.

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While it’s tempting to want to visit tigers in private wildlife preserves like the now-closed facility featured in the “Tiger King” documentary, it’s important to understand that by doing so you’re supporting a poorly regulated industry where animals are frequently subject to abuse.

When considering a visit to any zoo, check that it has been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires that zoos meet strict qualifications for best practices regarding quality of habitat, cleanliness and veterinary care, and also participate in worldwide conservation initiatives.

“Outside of safaris in national parks located in South Asia and Russia, there is simply no truly ethical way to see a tiger. While tigers in major metropolitan zoos are well cared for, and often arrive as rescue animals, the same can’t be said of most so-called rescue habitats or exotic animal parks, much less tiger encounter experiences in Asia,” says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, a nonprofit organization which seeks to use the economic benefits of tourism to protect human rights and the environment.

Noting examples such as the Thai Buddhist petting temple, which lost more than half of its 147 tigers to a virus, Greenwald says it’s important to support only the zoos and other highly respected and rated institutions recognized for providing high-quality care. “If you are compelled to see a live tiger and can’t afford a big trip to India, Nepal or Russia, see one in a legitimate zoo – like the Bronx or San Diego Zoo,” says Greenwald. “Otherwise, ask yourself: Am I willing to have a tiger captured, drugged or caged so that I can take a picture of it?”

There are bright spots, though, in the midst of this darker reality, with the numbers of Bengal and Siberian tigers both increasing over the past decade. Along with those rising numbers have come numerous positive developments in tiger tourism, including better regulation and infrastructure improvements in several of the world’s best tiger habitats. The result: Visitors have a better chance of seeing — and photographing — a tiger, without causing harm in the process.

Here, then, are 15 of the best — and most ethical — places to see tigers in the wild.

1. Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India

A Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park. (Photo by James Warwick/Getty Images)

Known as India’s “Tiger State,” Madhya Pradesh is home to more than 70% of the world’s wild tigers, making the state a magnet for those intent on a tiger sighting. More than 2,226 Bengal tigers inhabit this region, considerably upping your chances of seeing a tiger, especially if you hit more than one park.

Of Madhya Pradesh’s 50 tiger reserves, Bandhavgarh National Park is one of the best for tiger safaris.

2. Satpura National Park and Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, India

Connected to other Indian wildlife parks by wildlife corridors, Satpura National Park is part of the largest tiger habitat in the world. Unlike most tiger reserves, Satpura offers numerous safari options beyond jeep tours, including touring the park by boat and on foot. In addition, deer, gaur and other wildlife graze the park’s broad meadows and crocodiles sun themselves on the banks of slow-moving rivers.

3. Kanha and Pench national parks, Madhya Pradesh, India

If the dense and vine-draped forests of Kanha National Park and Pench National Park look straight out of “The Jungle Book,” they actually are — author Rudyard Kipling is said to have set his 1894 book in the area, including mention of the nearby city of Seoni. Interestingly, Kipling himself never actually visited the area, though he grew up in Mumbai (then known as Bombay) and spent some years working as a journalist in other parts of India, so he knew the country well. In addition to the jungle habitats, Kanha features expansive meadows where it’s easier to see tigers when they step into the open. For the deepest experience of tigers in Kanha and other central Indian parks, see them through the eyes of a local tour guide experienced in wildlife management, such as a trip organized by Wilderness Travel.

4. Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India

A Bengal tiger in Kaziranga National Park. (Photo by Joe McDonald/Getty Images)

A trip to Kaziranga National Park in India isn’t just about the tigers, since these lush meadows are just as well known for their population of one-horned rhinoceros, which make up close to two-thirds of the world’s population. Still, there are 111 Bengal tigers here in a fairly dense area, making it a favorite for tiger-spotting. Elephants and leopards up the fun factor as well.

5. Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, India

Spanning the lush valleys of the Kabini and Moyar rivers, Bandipur National Park shelters some 109 tigers at last count. Boasting one of the highest densities of tigers per acre, Bandipur also offers wildlife photographers a wealth of other options, from Indian elephants and sloth bears to more than 200 species of birds.

6. Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra, India

Situated in the Satpura mountains near the hill town of Chikhaldara, 890-square-mile Melghat Tiger Reserve is one of India’s largest tiger parks. More than 60 tigers roam the banks of the Tapti River and its tributaries. Visitors often combine a safari in Melghat with a visit to Chikhaldara and the 13th-century Mughal fortress of Gawilgarh.

7. Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan, India

A Bengal tiger in Ranthambore National Park. (Photo by Nimit Virdi/500px/Getty Images)

Once the royal hunting grounds of the maharajahs of Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park lures visitors with its romantic history along with its wildlife. While the park was relatively small when first established in 1955, it’s been expanded over the years to 1,334 square miles, making it India’s largest tiger park. Ranthambore is one of India’s more popular tiger parks both due to its location in attraction-rich Rajasthan and for its high chances of tiger-spotting. Don’t miss the ruins of Ranthambore Fort, built between the 10th and 16th centuries, high on a rocky butte and affording astonishing views.

8. Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, India

Called Hailey National Park when it was established in 1936 and renamed for a noted big game hunter and tiger conservationist, Jim Corbett National Park is India’s oldest national park. It was here in 1973 that Corbett founded Project Tiger, now the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which played a powerful role in allowing so many of India’s tigers to survive today. More than 230 tigers live in this national park which, unlike most others, has facilities for overnight stays, increasing your chances of a tiger sighting.

9. Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Bhutan

When the Bhutanese government launched its first tiger count in 2015, the country’s tiger population stood at 103, a number the government has proposed to double over the next decade. While Bengal tigers roam across much of the densely forested mountainous country, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park is one of the best places to see them, along with red pandas, golden langurs and rare clouded leopards.

10. Royal Manas National Park, Bhutan

Home to fewer than 30 critically endangered Bengal tigers, Royal Manas National Park was recognized by the World Wildlife Fund in 2020 for more than doubling its tiger population from just 12 tigers in 2008. Connected at its southern edge with India’s Manas Tiger Reserve and at its northern edge with Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Royal Manas greatly expands the territory over which the tigers can wander.

11. Sunderban National Park, Bangladesh

More than 200 Bengal tigers live in this swampy wetlands preserve in southwestern Bangladesh on the border with India. Canoe safaris are the transport of choice in Sunderban National Park, since its jungle-shrouded rivers are easier to navigate by boat than by vehicle, and the tigers are particularly entertaining to watch thanks to their penchant for swimming.

12. Bardia National Park, Nepal

A Bengal tiger in Bardia National Park. (Photo by Alberto Carrera/Getty Images)

Nepal can boast one of the best tiger success stories, with the population almost doubling over the past decade. At least 235 tigers live in the country’s five national parks, with Bardia National Park having the most with a population of approximately 80. In Bardia, you have a choice between a walking safari and a jeep safari. Opt for a full-day rather than half-day trip to increase your chances of seeing one of the park’s resident tigers — but you’ll feel just as lucky if you see one of the park’s wild elephants or one-horned rhinos.

13. Chitwan National Park, Nepal

More accessible than Bardia thanks to its location near Nepal’s southern border with India, Chitwan National Park has seen its conservation efforts pay off with the tiger population increasing to 235. The park’s one-horned rhinoceros population is another success story, up to almost 700 from a low of 100 in the late 1960s. Even if you don’t spot a tiger, a visit to Chitwan is worthwhile for a chance to watch these prehistoric-looking beasts.

14. Durminskoye Forest Reserve, Russia

This section of the taiga forest in far eastern Siberia, home to the last remaining Siberian tigers as well as rare Amur leopards, is top on the list for big cat aficionados determined to see the rarest of the rare. Remote is an understatement for this wild region, best explored as part of an organized Siberian wildlife tracking tour through a reputable outfitter such as Wild Voyager or Naturetrek.

15. Zov Tigra National Park, Russia

With a name that translates as “call of the tiger,” Zov Tigra National Park defines its existence as the last refuge of the endangered Siberian or Amur tiger, the largest of all the big cats. Only 500 of these magnificent cats remain in the world, and seeing them requires joining a responsible tiger expedition best suited to the more adventurous traveler. Even so, expedition organizers warn that travelers have a 1 in 8 chance of seeing one of these elusive cats, which prefer the cover of the region’s dense forests.

Featured photo of a tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park by Art Wolfe/Getty Images.

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