Ranthambore Tiger Reserve: In perpetual search of Sher Khan
Shooting in the dark to spot tigers in a tiger reserve
Seeing the magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger, the national animal of India, in the wild is a rare and unparalleled experience for any wildlife enthusiast. Many nature lovers and wildlife photographers flock to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan to desperately catch a glimpse of this majestic animal, along with other forest dwellers like leopards, deer and crocodiles in their natural habitat.
As the roar of the jeep stops, the rustic sounds of the jungle take over. Stretching out our ears, we hear in the distance the cries of the chattering birds and monkeys and wait, holding our breath, for the king of the Indian jungles to appear.
There are two main ways to track and spot tigers on a wildlife safari, explains our Ranthambore tour guide, Mahavir Singh. A cry of alarm by the prey animals of the forest, such as Langur monkeys, deer and ground-dwelling birds, such as peacocks and red jungle fowl. Compensating for a very intelligent animal that walks silently using its soft padded paws, calls ring out as a warning that a tiger is prowling nearby.
“Or you can spot the pugmarks. Tigers like to walk on open trails to avoid injury to their feet from thorns, so when we see new pug marks on the jungle roads and follow the footprints, ”says Singh India Media Group. He also points out some tiger droppings and explains that since tigers are solitary and very territorial animals, they mark their territories by marking trees with urine or defecate in the middle or side of the path and later scrape the ground, so that the “droppings” are visible to rival tigers.
When there is no tiger in sight, even after about 15 minutes, the jeep trudges over the rocky terrain. The park’s many naturalists and guides with their own jeeps or tourist gallops often stop and discuss previous sightings and tactics along the way, hoping to spot the elusive Sher Khan within the designated four hours ‘a hard safari.
Ranthambore National Park, located in Sawai Madhopur district in south-eastern Rajasthan, about 130 km from Jaipur and surrounded by the Aravalli and Vindhyanchal mountain ranges, is one of the largest and most renowned national parks from North India. Once the famous hunting ground of the Maharajas of Rajasthan, it is now a major wildlife tourist attraction attracting many wildlife photographers and nature and animal lovers. Spread over 1,334 km2, the park has ten ecotourism zones for bird and tiger watching.
The most popular tourist activity is to rent seats in a canter or jeep for a four hour safari, in the morning or evening, for around 1600 INR for a seat or 9600 INR for a full six seat open top jeep. . The first afternoon we had arrived in zone 10, suggested by the safari operator because that morning, tourists had luckily spotted a tigress and two of her cubs lurking around. It was an unsuccessful effort, however, and we returned disappointed but elated with the safari. Such ’empty’ safaris are no longer rare in Ranthambore, with true sightings of rare and widely spaced tigers. Not only does the dense jungle make them so difficult to spot, but the number of tigers is decreasing. While the official tiger count stands at around 70, some guides claim a few tigers are missing and have been missing for nearly two years, with camera traps set up around the forest unable to take pictures of them.
Although the tiger population has been increasing since 2014, when there were only 45 tigers, this has also led to an increase in poaching, with incidents of poachers being captured by live cameras and tigers seen with metal collars around the neck.
In addition, the Forestry Department had determined that the capacity of the park was only suitable for around 40 tigers, and the decrease in space for these solitary animals resulted in stress and a higher number of clashes and disasters. tiger attacks.
“We once saw a tiger on safari with huge bloody gashes on its body. So we had to assume that the other was dead. I have been working here for 20 years now and have seen some emerging before my eyes, ”Singh says.
Many of Ranthambore’s iconic tigers, favorites of wildlife photographers and bloggers, are no longer in the park, such as the tigress Machali who died in 2016 and T-24 (Ustad) who was moved to a zoo after being involved in several attacks. deadly. on staff.
Guides say the best time to visit are the months of April and May, when the intense heat pulls the animals out of the dense thrushes for a sip of water. But even without a tiger sighting, the park is still worth a visit for nature lovers and photographers who want to see animals in the wild, away from the man-made ambience of zoos. Along the way we saw the great Sambar deer, incidentally a tiger’s favorite meal, spotted deer, rare birds like Oriental Honey Buzzard, a swamp crocodile lying lazily near one of the many planes of water, and some Nilgai, the largest Asian antelope and fascinating for its appearance as a cross between a horse and a deer.
Tourists also have endless options for accommodation and food, with hotels nearby such as The Oberoi, Tigress Resort & Spa, and Pugmark Resort. Most offer delicious meals within the accommodation itself, but visitors can also head into town to shop for souvenirs or authentic Rajasthani handicrafts and clothing. Plus, a visit to the 10th-century Ranthambore Fort, which sits on top of a hill, and the Ganesh Mandir Temple, are great additions to your trip.
The park’s tourism industry has also slowly recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic, when the park and hotels remained closed from June, putting around 70% of staff and guides out of work. Tourists are returning in droves, with most hotels claiming there has been a recovery of around 30-40 pc since the lockdown and the second wave of the pandemic that hit in April 2021.
Although this time we didn’t get to see the King of the Jungle like many who have fallen in love with his wild charm, I hope to return for another attempt at Ranthambore National Park.