The world’s second most populous country is a wildlife wonderland, home to some of the most exotic — and endangered — animals on the planet.

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A tigeress with her two juvenile cubs (Bengal tigers, also called "Royal Tiger", Panthera tigris tigris) walking on a road in the green jungle. In the background a car with tourists and photographers is visible
Credit: Getty Images

Two hours into the first safari of my life, the hazy light of a fading Indian sun punctuates the inconvenient reality that time is not on our side. Bouncing along one dusty jungle road after the next, so far, we've come up empty in our search for Ranthambore National Park's iconic inhabitant: the elusive Bengal tiger, one of the rarest, most visually stunning animals to walk the earth. While I trust the Hindu gods of fate for an auspicious karmic conclusion — whomever they may be — the success of our evening game drive, and my knack for good luck, hangs in the balance of a 30-minute window. That's when the driver of our 4x4 Jeep kills the engine in the heart of the dense wilderness.

"We are just listening," my guide, Batti, says from the front seat. "No walkie talkies, but we do have monkeys."

Wrapped in a monastic silence, we wait and hope for the jungle to tip us off with the alarm call of a prey animal. At this point, anything will do. In the backseat, Sachin, the in-house naturalist from The Oberoi Vanyavilas Wildlife Resort, a five-star eco-camp on the fringe of the park in central India, studies the jungle floor for fresh tracks left behind by the colossal feline. This land, laden with temples and lakes and towering banyans, once served as the royal hunting ground for Jaipur's maharajas. Today, Ranthambore is a protected area and tiger reserve, home to an estimated 70 tigers in an area a hair smaller than Rhode Island. It teems with leopards, monkeys, wild boars, sloth bears, crocodiles, and a plethora of exotic birds.

The Oberoi Vanyavilas Wildlife Resort aerial view in Ranthambhore
Credit: Courtesy of The Oberoi Vanyavilas Wildlife Resort

Honk! Somewhere in the bush, a distant peacock alerts the animal kingdom of an apex predator on the prowl. Honk! Two samba deer, a tiger's favorite meal, dart out of the thick canopy for safer ground. Honk! Hastily, our driver turns the ignition and beelines it around the corner towards the disturbance. Suddenly, a swarm of 10 safari vehicles envelope the scene, none of which we've seen in the park today. Word has it two tiger cubs were spotted in the vicinity before vanishing into the brush like phantom cats. Now, amidst a sea of camouflaged tourists and telephoto lenses, again, we wait.

Fifteen on-the-edge-of-your-seat minutes later, the magic happens and the cubs, Riddhi and Siddhi, emerge a football field's length away. At nine months old, they're much bigger than my mind imagined the cubs to be. Slowly, they traipse towards us — even stopping to pounce and play as if they're household kittens — before settling in about half the distance home plate is to first base. Yes, that close.

At one point, Siddhi stops entirely to gaze at her audience, stamping a transcendent imprint on my memory all while sending chills down my spine. "It gives the feel of the 'Jungle Book,'" Sachin says. It does — in fact, the jungles of India were the muse for Rudyard Kipling's famous 19th-century tome.

Indian wild royal bengal tigers on hunt at dhikala zone of Corbett national park or tiger reserve india - panthera tigris tigris
Credit: Sourabh Bharti/Getty Images

Unlike an African safari, though, where travelers are typically dropped straight into a private reserve, an Indian safari doesn't skip the sights and sounds and smells that make India, India. Children playing cricket in dirt fields. Honking tuk-tuks and morning prayers aired over loudspeakers. The aromas of cardamom and incense and marigolds at the local market. Here, wildlife rubs shoulders with the country's 1.3 billion-plus population, letting safari goers sample everyday life by traveling through the heartbeat of the subcontinent.

With 104 national parks and more than 500 designated wildlife sanctuaries, outfitters are aplenty, and travelers need one. For my safari, I traveled with Greaves Tours, a Travel + Leisure A-list operator providing door-to-door luxury service, from meals to transportation to booking park permits. "India is a complex land, and many of the parks require travel by road," says Shahrookh Cambata, CEO of Greaves Travel LLC. "Wildlife parks must be booked in advance and it is essential you work with a reputable company that focuses on drivers who can navigate you safely."

India even has its own "big five": the Bengal tiger, Indian elephant, one-horned rhinoceros, Asiatic lion, and Indian leopard. "India is the only country in the world where you can see tigers, lions, and leopards," says Cambata. It's also home to "some of the best hotels in the world, adding a unique feel to the experience," he adds.

Wild, Wild East

Dreaming of a safari? These can't-miss Indian destinations showcase a swath of unique wildlife.

Wild male leopard or panther portrait at jhalana forest reserve jaipur rajasthan india - panthera pardus fusca
Credit: Sourabh Bharti/Getty Images

Jhalani Leopard Reserve

Less than four miles from Jaipur International Airport, more than 30 leopards roam this 13-square-mile forest on the edge of Rajasthan's biggest city. With no competition for food, sightings of Jaipur's famous residents are frequent, with plenty of deer and boar and blue bulls to be eaten. We spot two leopards in the babool- and acacia-lined backwoods, watching a cub hunt and fail to capture a peacock, and an adult leopard dining on a mongoose. For bonus wildlife kicks, glamp with rescued elephants and camels at Dera Amer (from $399), a luxe conservation camp on the outskirts of Jaipur in the foothills of the Aravalli range.

Asiatic Lion in Gir Forest at Sasan Gir, Gujarat, India
Credit: Getty Images

Sasan Gir National Park

The only lions in the world outside of Africa, the Asiatic lion, live on Western India's Gujarat Peninsula near the Arabian Sea coast. Numbers have steadily increased since being on the brink of extinction at the turn of the century, with more than 600 of these majestic cats inhabiting the rugged hills and open savannas that lie across the Bay of Cambay from Mumbai. Due to its location, Sasan Gir is a less-visited park; to glimpse at the king of the jungle, visit between December and April for optimal viewing.

Corbett Tiger Reserve

Come for the tigers, stay for the wild elephants. India's oldest national park (founded in 1936) sits 200 miles north of New Delhi in the state of Uttarakhand. Often considered the country's best wildlife experience for being the first park to protect Bengal tigers, this idyllic Shangri-la in the Himalayan foothills is also home to hundreds of Indian elephants that can be seen combing its vast grasslands and crossing the Ramganga River.

Kaziranga National Park

In the far reaches of eastern India, four major rivers run through this undisturbed marshland deemed one of the finest wildlife refuges in the world. Wedged between Bhutan and Bangladesh in the state of Assam, Kaziranga is celebrated by UNESCO for its achievements in conservation — primarily for saving the one-horned rhinoceros, where two-thirds of the world's population lives (an estimated 2,500 rhinos inhabit the park). With an abundance of water, travelers can birdwatch too (think: grey-headed fish eagles) and if luck falls your way, spot the highly endangered Ganges river dolphin.

On Safari

Family-owned operator Greaves Tours sets the standard for first-class service, offering tailor-made safaris throughout the Indian subcontinent. Their 15-night "Jungle Journey" itinerary goes through Ranthambore National Park, Pench National Park, and others, beginning in Delhi and ending in Mumbai.

andBeyond safaris 11-day tour of India includes both culture and wildlife with stops at the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort to go along with visits to Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park, two of India's best safari experiences.