Eyes rarely seen: looking for India’s big cats

This is the trip report of the 2023 STARLING India trip I guided over the last 2 weeks.

As you can see, this trip was mainly aimed towards seeing and identifying as much plant species as possible:

For me it’s all about them plants.

Now, where to begin… there is so much to tell about India’s wildlife.
First of all, I have never seen a country that divides opinions more than India does. So many people tell you “I WILL NEVER GO THERE” or “I WILL NEVER GO THERE AGAIN”, and are very adamant as to why they think that way. Persons I spoke to consider India a very crowded place, with open sewers and too much garbage everywhere. And when you travel there, most of the journey is being spent on the toilet, creating something that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.

Now you do see things that feel that way. Just two pics I took with my phone from the car as illustration…

In India you can literally see the entire countryside being put on fire, to burn the wheat remains before the rice is planted ahead of Monsoon season. Smoke as far as the eye can see.

But when you ask me about India, I think about my previous travels into the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, looking for Snow Leopards. I think about Buddhists being the most friendly people I have ever met. I think about the fact that India has more % vegetarians than any other country in the world, and why that is not a coincidence.
It is the country that houses more bear species and more cats than any other country. It is a country of many faces.

But mainly I think about conservation, and the fact India has truly done some remarkable feats to help bring back certain species from the brink of extinction.

Left: Lions then and now. Look at the entire Asiatic lion distribution now being reduced to one little dot (arrow) in Gujarat GIR national park. Right: Tigers then and now.

When I was born, there were still more than 30.000 tigers left in the wild. In 2006 there were only 1700. Asiatic lion dropped to just twelve (12!) individuals in the early 1900’s and had their lowest numbers a century before tigers did. Indian Wild Ass dropped to 350 individuals in the mid sixties. We could give many more examples like this, just like in Europe, but what India did differently is what keeps mesmerizing me. They took hard action, and difficult action (sometimes relocating villages and thousands of people), but it had results: There are now more than 4000 tigers, 674 Asiatic lions in GIR National Park and more than 4000 Indian Wild Asses in the Little and Greater Rann of Kutch.

The purpose of this trip was not only to see and photograph these animals, but to try and learn about the Indian way of conservation. First day however we went to check out some historic New Delhi culture sites, in order to acclimatize…

Red Fort
Qutab minar, 72m high

We then visited two area’s: First the Northwestern part of India (Gujarat) with Little Rann of Kutch and GIR as national parks on our list. After that we travelled to Madhya Pradesh province in the center of the country, where some of the big tiger reserves are found. There we visited Satpura NP, Pench NP and Tadoba NP.

Cats are best found in dry seasons, so we opted for the very warm Indian Summer with temperatures regularly going over 40°C. It is not only warm, the light is also very bright and photography can only be properly done early morning and late evening. The picture below is not converted to Black-and-white but shows how hard the light can be at 9 am already. I was warned by many people about this: “forget landscape photography, and the light will not be what you want it to be. But you will love it!”

White eyed buzzard in hard sunlight.

The trip started with a visit to the salt flats of Little Rann of Kutch. For centuries, people have been flooding the land with fresh water, allowing underground salt deposits to crystallize, dry out, and be harvested. The scenery shows these manually dug out dikes, flamingos attracted to crustaceans thriving in the salty water, and dozens of salt trucks carrying the salt through the desert. A scene none of the group had seen before.

Big dust clouds from salt trucks overshadow the landscape
local salt farmer, showing how the salt crystallizes
This salt needs a few more months before it can be harvested

But Little Rann is also home to some typical dry species: Desert fox, caracal, jungle cat, striped hyena and off course the wild donkeys

Juvenile desert fox cubs in the den
NICE ass! The Indian wild ass is one of the very few remaining wild donkey species
Black drongo loves riding the ass

After this it was time to go to GIR, “only a seven hour drive” we were reassured…

Dry tropical forests of GIR NP
In summer safari’s look like this. Most trees don’t have leaves and sit out the heat until July when the Monsoons come.
Eurasian thick-knee breading

In 100 years GIR 60 X’ed their lion population. In fact, this is the only remaining population of the Asiatic lion. GIR now has around 674 lions, 400 leopards and 200 striped hyena’s so it is a carnivore paradise. Lions are lions and never care about your presence, but the leopards were proving more difficult. Thanks to our good spotters, we found a male observing us from the bushes.

The spotters saw he was thirsty and decided to go to the nearest water hole and wait. And after a while, they were proven right…

Asiatic lions differ from African lions by having fewer manes, thicker tail end and a ventral skin fold on their bellies. They are just as lazy though, of the many dozens of lions I have seen in my life, none of them were running…

Big daddy had been fighting

A brown barren landscape it was then, but occasionally there was a flash of colour, like this Black-rumped Flameback.

Also very special were the first ghost trees, of which we would see many more.

A natural gum (karaya) is exuded by the tree when the bark is damaged. This valuable substance is traditionally tapped by cutting or peeling back the bark, or by making deep gashes at the base of the trunk. Locals call it the ghost tree since its white trunk would reflect whitish in the moonlight.

One night I saw the biggest bat I have ever seen. Turned out there was a roost of Indian Flying fox nearby. Such cool animals to spend time with.

1.5kg and a wingspan of up to 1.5m wide! Truly special.
And we learned that males do urinate on themselves (easier when hanging upside down), to cool off.
Also see the juvenile on the right, attached to mom.
Female flying with juvenile attached
Hans getting right into some holy action

In Gujarat, we also saw the first of three Jungle cats whilst spotlighting. Following, we travelled east towards three tiger parks. The first one, Satpura NP is big and has approx. 50 tigers. So the statistics of seeing tiger here are rather low, but it is a greener park and I wanted the best chance to see sloth bear.

Cool landscapes to explore
I love to hold you. Stranglehold you… Lots of parasitic tree species in the teak forests.
painted storks
Crested serpent eagle up close

In Satpura we saw higher numbers of Indian bison (better known as Gaur) too.

Adult male Gaur weigh up to 1500kg. Crazy to believe that tigers can bring them down. Especially when female tigers have grown cubs, mother and cubs target Gaur together.

When you do Safari trips in India, it is much more regulated than in Africa. You get a dedicated jeep, with a dedicated driver and dedicated guide, to drive a chosen route. This means inevitably that some people in our group would see things the others wouldn’t. By doing around 20 Safari in total, I hoped observations would be plentiful for everybody and we would all see the top targets. Two big sightings were done by only one jeep: A rusty spotted cat in Satpura and the famous Blacky, the black leopard from Tadoba. I missed both.

Peacocks were seen every day. Many people (including myself) grew up seeing peacocks as farm animals, but if you step back and look at what you are seeing in these Indian jungles… truly extraordinary
Male display

Satpura was also on the to do list because it is the best place to find Indian Giant Squirrel, one of the largest squirrels in the world.
At first we only saw their silhouettes racing through the treetops, but afterwards we found an animal at a nest site.

It measures up to 80 cm
Indian giant squirrel at its nest

It took us a couple of days, but then we also finally found sloth bear families.

Sloth bears solely live of termites. The length of their claws is needed to break open termite mounts.
Whilst mother was digging in a termite mount, the juveniles moan in order for her to move so they can lick up some termites too. Sloth bears even miss some front teeth so they can suck harder when they stick their head in a termite colony. Cool behaviour.
Indian nightjar
Brown fish owl
Woolly necked stork

Then things started getting serious as we arrived in Pench NP. Pench has more tiger sightings and off course tiger was the main target species so all was now directed towards seeing the big cat.

Where there is water, there are lodges. Great birding in the lodge garden in Pench NP.
Scanning for tigers

All throughout the trip we had many sightings of grey langur primates. Most mothers were carrying infants.

Wild Red junglefowl. The true OG of modern chickens
SSSSSS make me immortal with a kiss

Lots of owls were seen:

Mottled wood owl at nest site
Indian Scops owl
Spotted owlet
White browed wagtail

After half of our stay in Pench, nobody had seen a tiger, so a healthy dose of stress was starting to creep up on us. Local people kept saying “no worries. you will see them”, but some people in the group thought it was about time the guides found them a tiger. No pressure…

So how do you find a tiger?

You find the tiger by listening to deer and monkeys their alarm calls. There are basically two big cats in the forest: leopard and tiger. Leopards are scared of tigers and move through the undergrowth with speed, implying alarm calls are short and quickly stop as the cat moves out of sight. Tigers run the show, and walk much slower, therefore alarms last much longer. Our spotters were 110% sure whether alarm calls came from tiger or leopard activity.

Sambar deer in tiger country are always very wary
axis deer
We even found two of the seldom seen four horned antilope.

At some point a guide shouted and pointed to the trees. Hans saw a rather nice pattern in between two trees and pointed it out for me. For me the sighting of the trip followed:


The same evening, we heard some very nearby monkeys alarming, and then it became quiet. Our guide proposed to wait and see what happens. Ten minutes later he exploded and whistled -or better shouted- THERE! Tiger hunting!!!
It took me a few more minutes to find it, but there she was, stalking.

Female tiger stalking prey
Then she looked at us, and came towards us…
And crossed the road 10m in front of the car. A quick growl to show who was boss and of she went.

In the following days everybody saw tigers but it was only at Tadoba national park, where the sightings increased. Tadoba, Corbett and Bandhavgarh are currently seen as the three top tiger parks.

Old jungle in Tadoba
Asiatic honey bee nest. The bees sleep against the combs and protect the nest.
Spot breasted fantail nest.
Indian Civet
Wild dogs were seen in Pench and Tadoba
The enigmatic paradise flycatcher
Orange headed thrush couple in the bamboo forests

In Tadoba five years ago a woman tried taking a selfie with a tiger and fell from the jeep. Another jeep driver quickly blocked her off from the tiger but the park decided to ban smartphone use. So outside of the park you now have people renting out digital camera’s to take a picture of your tiger sighting.

Something else I noticed outside the park, were these graves. Graves of people, killed by tigers.

Also we noticed a guide saying that some tigers are not approached, because they have killed people already. I asked him where the limit was? And he indicated that when a tiger kills 5-10 people, he has to retire in a zoo. When they kill even more, the tiger can get shot.

I couldn’t believe that so many people want to extirpate our local wolves in Europe, because they have killed a couple of sheep.

In india Tigers kill between 100-200 people a year, whilst leopards are responsible for around 600 fatalities.

In Tadoba, there have been years with 40 people killed by tigers, when they go and collect firewood from the forest. I was astounded to hear people still want the tiger and tiger ecotourism in their surroundings. Respect to them.

I think we have a lot to learn from the Indians and their patience when it comes to rewilding and conservation.

A queen resting in the bamboo forest:

Whenever a tiger is found, people gather. In the following image you see more than 100 people looking at the same tiger. The tiger, strangely, does not care at all. Only 15% of these parks is open to safari tourism, and the carnivores are often more abundant in the tourist zone than in the quiet park zone.

On the last tiger drive we found a mother with four subadult cubs. She must be a formidable hunter to feed five mouths…

And this sighting concluded the trip. We saw wild nature, well managed parks, more than 30 tigers and 25 lions, sloth bears, unique smaller mammals and around 170 bird species. But above all we met the friendliest people on the planet, who might have less than we do, but seem to be happier. Next time Kaziranga?

I want to thank a few people:

First of all our local guide Gajendra: you were amazing. Thanks also to Iqbal and Mr. Mohit himself for all the local help by Asian adventures.

Thanks to Billy for managing everything on our side: STARLING delivered a very solid trip!
Thanks to the group of ten fantastic participants who wanted to skip sleep to find mammals. What more could I ask for? Lots of hardcore photographers also, we learned a lot from each other.


  1. Bert Van den Bossche

    Really really beautiful !
    Lot’s of respect for the way of showing us a part of your passion.
    Lot’s of respect for the local people who live amongst these beautiful creatures.
    Keep on making these trips, so we can learn from it to preserve and recover what’s still to discover for many of us.

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