Greetings from Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan – home of the world-famous and spectacular Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve! Since our arrival 2 nights ago, we’ve been immersed in a fascinating culture that revolves around the reserve and conservation of the 40 or so (depending who you ask) Royal Bengal Tigers that live there.
We entered the park by jeep yesterday just after dawn – a thick fog was lifting, it was near freezing, and we kept spotting eerie tinges of vibrant blue in the brush that turned out to be peacocks. The safari was magnificent. I won’t bore you with a list of all the animals and birds we saw, but some of the coolest were crocodiles, antelopes, a spotted owl, and a woodpecker. Spotted deer, peacocks, and langurs (enormous monkeys) were seen so frequently that it got a bit old (but not really). Most visitors to the park, though, are here for one reason and one reason alone – to check off “tiger sighting” on their bucket lists.
Typically, a limited number of jeeps drive around the park at specified times, directed by guides who are adept at tracking down a tiger. (The heftier the tip promised, the more adept the guide seems to become.) At one point, our guide pointed out a pug mark (tiger footprint) on the dusty road, and I was surprised how excited I felt knowing a gigantic wild jungle cat was prowling around in our immediate vicinity! We were told that a tigress lived nearby with three cubs, and would likely be out stalking prey for them at that time – so we watched and waited, and waited and watched. Alas, she eluded us.
Our second safari, in the afternoon, was even more amazing than the first. We were joined by a very cool couple from Jaipur who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary with a safari weekend, as they’d done for their honeymoon! They turned out to be far more knowledgeable about the park and its inhabitants than was our somewhat surly guide, who generally pointed out a bird or animal to us a full five minutes after our jeep-mates had finished telling us all about its mating and feeding habits.
Some of the wondrous things we saw were a couple of antelopes standing out in the middle of the serene lake, grazing on weeds; an osprey perched on a branch tearing apart a fish it had just caught; and most astonishing of all, we witnessed the first steps of a newborn spotted deer. As our jeep was stopped to observe the herd more closely, we noticed the baby sitting by its mother who was cleaning herself, having apparently just given birth. We waited a little, with baited breath – and could hardly believe our eyes when the little deer slowly got to its feet and took a few tentative, wobbly steps.
Despite the awesomeness of this second safari, we couldn’t help but be (only slightly, of course) disappointed. I really, REALLY wanted Riccardo to see the tiger. We exited the park agreeing that it was still such a cool experience – but really, we both knew it was kind of bullshit – we wanted to see a tiger, dammit!
All of a sudden, just beyond the park limits, our guide stopped the jeep – he had heard the warning calls sent out by the deer and monkeys signaling that a tiger was near (they have this whole system – very impressive). With no time to lose, the guide told our driver to floor it, and we sped through the forest in hot pursuit. It was all very exciting. After some time, our group converged with several like-minded others, and the guides and drivers of each vehicle started shouting excitedly to one another and jockeying for position. So close.
Then, as if on cue, there it was. A male Royal Bengal Tiger stepped out from the brush and sauntered through the trees, cool as you like. He was about 50 feet from us. Everyone was beside themselves; this was what we had all been waiting for. Some annoying girl behind me kept complaining that she couldn’t see it, but I was too mesmerized by the sight of the tiger to bother pointing him out to her (don’t worry, she eventually caught a glimpse.) We stood on the seats of the jeep, watching the tiger amble around, marking his territory before finally disappearing back into the trees.
Up until the actual sighting, Riccardo and I both had the feeling that it was all kind of zoo-like… all the camera-happy tourists coming to gawk at the poor beast. But after seeing it, we really couldn’t believe that we were able to set eyes on such a majestic specimen, completely wild and on its own turf – particularly given that its days as a species are so tragically numbered. Back at our hotel, Vishnu (our fantastic host) shared his extensive tiger knowledge with us, as well as a couple of videos on tiger conservation efforts in India. What an eye-opener. We learned that in addition to the rampant deforestation that goes on to this day, poaching is still devastating the number of tigers in India. Apparently, there’s big money in tiger products thanks to Chinese medicine. Poachers from China or Tibet come into town and befriend the impoverished locals who legally hunt deer or partridges in the reserve, and end up offering them vast sums to help them set traps. India’s disturbingly ineffective bureaucracy has created or exacerbated the problem in dozens of ways. Through botching the actual number of tigers in one reserve in particular (Sariska, also in Rajasthan), the government denied the problem until the population was reduced to ZERO! (But wait! There’s good news. The park we visited has been making great strides in increasing the number of tigers and has even airlifted some of them to the other reserve, so the population there is slowly renewing.)
Here’s a glimpse…