Maharashtra’s rich forests, which make up for about 20 per cent of its geographical area, hold the largest biodiversity among all the states in India. The state has six national parks, 47 wildlife sanctuaries and four conservation reserves—57 protected areas in all, with a total area of 10,057.01sq km.
The state has as many as six tiger reserves. The most high-profile among them is, of course, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Chandrapur District, which has been drawing close to 2,00,000 wildlife enthusiasts annually from around the country and across the globe for the last few years. However, the others namely Melghat in Amravati District, Pench in Nagpur District, Navegaon-Nagzira in Gondia and Bhandara districts, Bor in Wardha District and Sahyadri Tiger Reserve in Sangli District are equally alluring and rich in fauna.
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According to the latest official wildlife census, the report of which was released in 2019, there were 312 tigers in the state’s protected areas. The actual number is generally expected to be higher since tigers also reside in non-protected areas and buffer zones, which were not covered in the census exercise.
However, there is much more to Maharashtra’s forests than just tigers. For birdwatchers, insect enthusiasts, botanists or just plain nature lovers, these jungles hold boundless treasures. Here are some forest areas which must be on any wildlife buff’s must-see list:
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Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is a dry deciduous forest consisting mostly of bamboo and teak. It boasts of all major species of wildlife including the tiger, leopard, sloth bear, Indian gaur, dhole (wild dogs), monitor lizard and five species of antelope, as well as a variety of resident and migratory birds. The temperature can go up to a blistering 48 degrees Celsius in the summer and yet the park is chock-a-block with wildlife enthusiasts for a glimpse of the tiger. During summer the forest seems to be on fire with shades of golden yellow and red, which serves as the perfect camouflage for the tiger.
However, the harsh weather dries up most of the water sources in the jungle except for the big lakes, where visitors can spot most of the animals. Apart from its sights during summer, TATR has something to offer in every season. It is fascinating to see the forest turn green again during monsoon. In winter different species of butterfly can be spotted flitting about. The Tadoba lake and the Andhari River are not only lifelines that sustain the animals in the park, they also add to its charm, especially after the monsoon. The jamun trees on the banks of Tadoba lake, which are half submerged after the rainy season, look like they’re wearing long skirts, pirouetting with their arms thrown up in the air. They definitely make for a memorable sight.
Over the past decade, several accommodation options have sprung up in Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve including luxury stays, homestays and everything in between. One of the newer wildlife sanctuaries in the state, Umred Karandla is just 53km from Nagpur. This sanctuary is connected to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve along the Wainganga River and also to Bor Tiger Reserve and Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve. The forest is well-known for the big male resident tiger Jai, who had a huge fan following but was reported to have gone missing or poached a few years back. The region also boasts some rare sightings of the flying squirrel, pangolin and honey badger.
Unlike Tadoba Andhari’s dense bamboo and teak forest, Pench (Maharashtra) has many beautiful meadows. One can see packs of foxes that live in burrows and also spot them hunting for smaller prey. The sunsets in this region should not be missed. In fact, as the dust settles down in the forest in the evening, most of the area resembles the fictitious Middle Earth—the setting of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Bor Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve, 60km from Nagpur, got its name Bor from jujube or the Indian plum known as bor in Marathi and ber in Hindi. Up until the 80s the forest was full of jujube trees. Bor is the smallest tiger reserve (138.12sq km) with a buffer zone that is five times its size (661.16sq km). Bor Tiger Reserve and its buffer are full of gorgeous water bodies including small waterfalls and lakes. The biggest of them is the backwaters of the Bor dam.
Sahyadri Tiger Reserve has been divided into Chandoli National Park and Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary. Chandoli is the southern portion, while Koyna forms the northern part of the reserve. The presence of Shivaji’s forts—Prachitgad and Bhairavgad—from the 17th century and ruins of Bhavani temple add another dimension to the park. Both Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and Melghat Tiger Reserve have a huge population of leopards due to their mountainous terrain. Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park, too, is home to close to 40 leopards but this urban biodiversity hotspot is known to be more of a butterfly and bird-watching haven.
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Navegaon National Park as well as Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary comprise the only two regions where one might spot the elusive mouse deer besides the panther, sloth bear and wolf. This southern tropical dry deciduous forest is a birdwatcher’s paradise: almost 60 per cent of Maharashtra’s bird species are to be found here.
All these forests have a distinct atmosphere. The wildlife, the water bodies, the hills and vast swaths of grasslands give them an individual character. Look out for our exhaustive guides on the best destinations to explore wildlife in Maharashtra.
HERE'S WHAT TO BE MINDFUL OF:
While rules and guidelines for wildlife tourists may vary slightly from park to park, there are some things that are common.
- Tourists need to book safari rounds inside parks. This can be done online (mahaecotourism.gov.in) or on the spot.
- Certain parks are closed on certain days of the week. Enquire beforehand.
- Most parks do not allow diesel vehicles or vehicles that are older than a certain number of years, inside parks.
- Maruti Gypsies are the most common vehicles inside parks. A typical Gypsy can carry a maximum of six tourists, a driver and a guide. A guide is mandatory in private vehicles.
- Some parks, such as TATR, charge separately for camera lenses with a focal length over 250mm.
- Once inside the parks, tourists are not allowed to get down on the forest floor except at expressly designated areas. Tourists can pick nothing, not even a blade of grass, from inside the forest.
- Littering the forest is prohibited.
- Honking vehicle horns and shouting is prohibited inside the parks.
- Smoking, consumption of alcohol and spitting are not allowed.
- Feeding or teasing the animals is strictly prohibited.
- Speed limit inside the park is 20kmph.
- Carrying matchboxes, lighters, transistors, firearms and explosives inside the parks is not allowed.
- Maintain reasonable distance between two vehicles. Do not crowd vehicles or break discipline to spot wild animals. Also maintain safe distance from wild animals and avoid trying to get too close to them.