World travellers Bill Gent and Diana Russler spend a week in India's Ranthambore nature reserve tracking down its elusive tigers
To see an animal in its natural habitat is a privilege. To see a Bengal tiger in the wild is almost a mystical experience! Yet, with only about 3,000 of these magnificent creatures left, the likelihood of seeing one outside a zoo diminishes with each passing day.
The only places where you can see Bengal tigers in their natural habitats are in the protected preserves in India. Ranthambore Tiger Preserve in Rajasthan is home to about 27 tigers, and it is here that we come on a Natural Habitat Adventure company expedition for a unique opportunity to photograph the world’s largest cat.
This 200 square mile park between Agra and Jaipur was once a royal hunting ground for the Maharajahs of Jaipur. Remains of ancient Mughul structures are scattered around the area, remnants of a bygone era. Following India’s independence, the area was set aside as a wildlife sanctuary and has been a focus of tiger preservation since the 1970s.
We visit Ranthambore in the middle of summer (April–June). Temperatures top 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day, and the preserve is seared dry by the relentless sun. As water becomes scarce, tigers often can be found, in early morning and late afternoon, somewhere near one of the few remaining waterholes. However, with such small numbers left, your chances of seeing a tiger, even in a preserve, are largely a factor of luck and the skill of your tracker guide.
We spend four days exploring the park. There are eight trails across the portion of the preserve that is open to visitors. To minimise the impact on the environment, strict controls limit the number of vehicles and visitors allowed at any given time. Routes are allocated on a lottery system with only eight vehicles permitted on each route during the early morning and late afternoon time slots.
Bouncing in an open-topped jeep over dirt tracks and dried out, boulder-strewn, riverbeds, our guide stops periodically to look for pugmarks in the soft sand or to listen for the alarm calls of the sambar deer and langur monkeys that signal a tiger on the move. Sometimes we sit for almost an hour in the torrid heat, scanning the dried grass for movement. Searching for tigers is certainly an exercise in patience, endurance and fortitude!
One afternoon a tiger is sighted in a cave! Great excitement ensues! We sit waiting for the great beast, known as T-6, to wake up from its slumbers. Before long it stands, stretches and begins a slow pad out of the cave, down a rocky incline. It is no more than 15 feet from where our jeep is parked. Apparently nonplussed by its appreciative audience, the tiger slowly strolls up a hill, through a meadow and into a grove of trees. Periodically, it stops in the shade for a few minutes, surveying the land, before setting off again. Its destination is a small water hole at the base of a rocky outcrop.
Sniffing the air around him, the almost 600lb animal walks into the pool where he lies down up to his neck! It is a lovely way to cool down in the blistering heat! For about 40 minutes the tiger lolls around, periodically lapping the water to quench his thirst. He appears oblivious to the people watching his every move, cameras clicking away in rapid-fire to catch the twitch of a whisker or the sight of a canine! However, make no mistake! These are wild animals. A snap of a twig will bring the tiger to full attention, scouting the landscape for any potential threat or for its next meal.
His bath finished, the tiger plods through the water, looking over his shoulder as if to say, “That’s it! Showtime’s over!” He shakes the moisture off his magnificent orange-striped coat, and wanders into the undergrowth where we lose him.
The next morning, we are fortunate to find T-24, a seven-year old male tiger, lying in another waterhole under a large tree. Several days earlier, a crocodile in the same waterhole, had killed a spotted deer that was lying, bloated, near the water’s edge. The tiger probably has stolen the kill and stashed it nearby. Gracefully picking his way over the stones, T-24 walks out of the pond and through the grass to a second waterhole where he stops for a long drink. We follow him as he crosses a rocky outcrop bordering a small stream, to his cave. The stench of decay that seems to envelope him – in all likelihood the result of rolling in the kill – wafts across the stream.
As the wind picks up and whistles through the cave, the tiger looks around quizzically, as if to say, “Where’s that smell coming from?” Then, he proceeds to wash himself from head to toe before plopping down for his midday sleep.
We see tigers only twice on the seven game rides we take over our four days in Ranthambore, a testament to the elusiveness of this iconic animal. Although there is hope that in the coming months there will be more tiger sightings because of the high number of cubs born this spring, the tiger is far from safe. Poaching for tiger skins and tiger parts used for medicinal purposes in China and the Far East continues to decimate the tiger population. What a tragedy it will be if these magnificent animals disappear from their natural habitat!
Bill and Diana spent 30 years working for national and international companies. Now they are pursuing their twin passions of travel and photography. Allegria Travels chronicles their adventures.
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