Photo: N Shiva Kumar
Tracking a tiger in the wild is a tantalising task and to again espy big cats in the jungles, recently, I set out for another adventure to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve (RTR). The scorching Indian summer heat was sizzling at 42-degree centigrade, but it was no deterrent for me. I drove 400km in six hours from Noida/New Delhi and reached Ranthambhore in comfortable time to catch the
evening safari. Having an annual pilgrimage, for the last 20 years, became a routine for me to indulge in the jungles of RTR. This time, from 14 th to 17 th June, I pampered myself with six safaris and sighted seven tigers, which was a milestone of sorts.
Tigers have terrific tactical demeanours with total control of their temperament despite high temperatures and tormenting tourists. To beat the heat, they are either in slumber with forest patches or plonked in cool-pools waiting for twilight to explore their territories. Serious wildlife enthusiasts prefer summer safaris, as it is comparatively easier to locate a tiger as they mostly prowl around water bodies. Even forest foliage, including ground vegetation, dwindles to a bare minimum making tiger detection easier than usual. Tackling a tiger in its kingdom on undulating topography is often a game of immense patience and determined indulgence.
The heat and dust in summer and chilling winters add to the challenge of chasing tell-tale marks of hidden tigers in Ranthambhore. Regular tourists treat a tiger with curiosity, while first-timers are scared at the thought of seeing a wild tiger from an open vehicle. Tiger watching is like an addiction to many and I am one of them who is always eager, wanting to taste the thundering tigers and capture them in camera. It’s even more pleasurable, if a tiger mother is with cubs or siblings playing pranks with each other
in the lake waters.
Located 14 km from the town of Sawai Madhapur and 150 km from the city of Jaipur in the arid Rajasthan, Ranthambhore is an oasis in the desert. Snugly situated at the junction of two mountain
ranges - Aravallis and Vindhya’s, Ranthambhore offers premium opportunities for viewing the magnificent tiger in the wild. They live in dry but lavish landscape with a heady mix of rolling hills,
rocky cliffs, green meadows, streams and lakes which is also home to a diversity of indigenous flora and fauna. Apart from the tiger, one can also spot secretive leopards, rare caracal cat, clumsy sloth bear, basking crocodiles, jackal, fox, hyena, mongoose, snakes and a variety of birds.
Once, the royal hunting grounds of maharajas and later the British, tigers were killed at random in Ranthambhore. This stretch of jungle was declared as Tiger Reserve to safeguard the supreme
cats that have been vanishing across the Indian subcontinent due to poaching and encroachments. The ambitious Project Tiger was launched in early 1970s to preserve the dwindling population and this started in earnest and vegetative wealth in Ranthambhore regained its original vigour. Surprisingly aquifers in the area began to replenish and water tables increased much to the advantage of the surrounding villagers. Even now, the difference in the ecology inside Tiger Reserve and outside is staggeringly evident.
Hunting permits were issued until 1969, but Indira Gandhi, former Indian Prime Minister, and Kailash Sankhla, the then Director of the Delhi Zoo, formulated plans for the beleaguered tigers. Fortunately, at the same time, Fateh Singh Rathore, a passionate forester fostered this forest to its pristine glory by preparing a strategy for protection of jungles. This involved shifting of 20 villages from inside the park and convincingly rehabilitating rustic folk by 1976-77 when villagers were moved out and tigers began to move in. In 1980, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was a regular visitor, made Ranthambhore National Park famous as a wildlife destination for tourists wanting to see the tiger.
The tropical tapestry of jungles in Ranthambhore provides enough prey for tigers and trigger regular breeding with prolific progeny. Tigers give birth to a litter of two to four of which one or two tend to survive to adulthood, and all four survive if the mother is a good hunter. Currently, the tiger population has over 75 specimens that occupy their demarcated niches. Because the survival rate is high, Ranthambhore has become a natural breeding hub for wild tigers. Bountiful breeding of tigers has helped select young adults to be shifted, literally airlifted, to nearby wildlife sanctuaries where tigers had disappeared due to poaching. As in the case of Sariska national park, which is about 170 km from Ranthambhore, tigers were reintroduced successfully. Today, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve sprawling over 700 sq.km. is one of the greatest success stories of wildlife conservation in the world with the highest earnings by tiger tourism in India.