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 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 (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.
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 (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.
Slightly smaller than their African cousins and with a more orangey tint to their fur, the world's only Asiatic lio