The engine power cut, with perceptible palpitation, and with excited anticipation, eight pairs of eyes searched and scanned for the object of all the noise and commotion, and the main purpose for this trip - Presence of a tiger on the prowl !!!
Welcome to Ranthambore National Park. we waited reversed the gypsy jeep and headed to where the ranger thought the tiger might be present. Another call from a sambhar confirmed the definite presence of the tiger in the area. In a 85F late afternoon weather, six visitors and two rangers drove around looking for the big cat.
"Vo Dekh" ( look there !!) yelled the ranger, in the muddy trail were fresh wet pug marks of the big cat. The tiger has just crossed over from the shallow pond nearby and vanished into the jungle.
There were the deers, the peacock and peahens, sambhar but no tiger. Another hour of wandering in the wilderness, alas there was no tiger to be seen. We would have to try our luck next morning, bright and early.
Ranthambore national park presumably the only tiger reserve in India with a sizable population of tigers (24-30 depending of which ranger you ask) is the best place to spot a tiger. Ranthambore consists of dry patches of forest intermixed with descidous trees, the current population and ample game allows tigers to eat a plenty. Along the edge of national park are scores of lodges to tented luxurious lodgings that fit all kind of budgets. Each person signs an indemnity form against injury and bodily harm, which then is handed over to Rajasthan Department of Forest authorities. At 530 Rs (approx. USD 12) per head for foreigners, and 131Rs (approx. 3USD) Indians. It is considered quite expensive. The only way to book is online. However, for a premium (Rs 800-1000) lodges will get you on a gypsy jeep or a Cantor within a couple of hours advance notice.
As the sun set behind the valley the sudden change in temperature was felt in the open jeep. Heading
back to our lodges our minds pre-occupied with the experience of the afternoon. While a sighting or two of a howler monkey or a sloth in Costa Rican forests was considered a success, dozens of langurs, scores of spotted deers, many sambhars in the wild did not, a warm fuzzy feeling give.
630AM in the morning, bright and early, our vehicle was at the door. The rangers had to pick some other visitors from various lodges, finally we reached the entrance to the Ranthambore park entrance by 700AM. As we enters the tiger reserve zone 3, the word came from the other gypsy which had entered the park 15 minutes earlier, that a distress call of a sambhar was heard. Next to the previous day's zone No: 2, this zone was marked as the territory of a tigress. The chase to spot the tiger was now in full swing. Going up and down the area where the call was heard, three of the four gypsy and two of the four cantors focussed on the water bodies where the tiger might come to look for game.
The fourth gypsy came with news that the multiple screeches by a sambhar as it was attacked by the tiger, but some how escaped, wounded and bleeding. Speculation was rife that the tigress would wait patiently for nightfall to finish off the sambhar. Sambhars are considered the favorite game of the tigers because they have a poor vision in the range of 100 or so feet, and are not very fast runners.
The sun was now heating the morning air and the fog had all but vanished, so had the tiger. Another hour or so of wandering in the wilderness aimlessly without success, The chitals, the peacocks, the sambhars, the langurs and the various birds in the forests were of little interest as we head back to the lodge. A group of four from our lodge had success in another zone as they spotted a tiger cross the trail a hundred feet in front of their cantor.
It was time to give it another go in the afternoon, the last chance to the the great bengal tiger in the wild before they vanish; being victim to insatiable appetite of the chinese neighbors to tiger body parts. Poachers with more resources and money have greater success worldwide than the wildlife officials. For a premium the manager of the lodge booked a seat in the cantor.
Ranthambore National Park, allows only twenty gypsy jeeps and twenty cantors (open trucks with 18-20 seats) per session. The park has five zones and each zone gets four cantors and four gypsy jeeps. One cannot choose the zones, nor can one select the ranger/guide. The park management has made effort to ensure that no one has unfair access to zones, or guides. But premium that the lodges charge to get you into the cantor or gypsy seem to indicate gaming of the system.
At 200PM the cantor came to pick people from the lodge, the cantor was assigned zone 5. After making a few more stops to pick other visitors, we headed to the park entrance. Again the indemnity forms were filled and signed, and off we went to zone 5. As the cantor rolled early on the forest ranger heard howling of langurs, since we were close to the sheer soaring aravalli hill range, he informed us that it could be a leopard, and it was very unlikely we'd spot the leopard as it was bound to be in the high up in the ranges.
As we turned to enter zone 5, we were joined by two more cantors and a gypsy jeep. The sun was blazing hot, and yet the air was pleasant. We climbed to a height of about a thousand feet to look for tiger on the outside chance that it might have gone up to hunt. The grass at that height was dry, and the trees squat and shrubs dry. The chitals were grazing and we spotted a few spotted owls.
At this height there is little place to hide, yet chitals can outrun a tiger, who is not a fast and long distance runner. It depends on surprise to make its kill. We climbed down to a large lake hoping to see more fauna. A gypsy came from the opposite direction. "behta hai nalle paar", he said. (He's sitting by the stream)
Our driver/ranger backed up the cantor, a made a beeline there was excitement. The second ranger raised his hand motioning us to be quiet. Fifteen minutes later the cantor cut its engine and quietly rolled down. The air was filled with anticipation. The surrounding was quiet, pin drop silence. No birds chirping, no langurs howling, no peacocks calling. We turn around the bend, hundred yards ahead was a gypsy jeep. Their ranger motioned from afar to proceed slowly. We joined the gypsy and came to a halt.
And there he was !!!!! In the grassy patch by a stream, sitting, relaxing.
A mere 150 feet or so. Ignoring the presence of a truck full and jeep full of lunch toting cameras and binoculars. After what seem like eternity, the tiger laid down to take a nap. By this time there were two more cantors and two more jeeps.
Amused at the prospect of so many guests , and ignoring the chaachangs of the DSLRs he proceeded to take his afternoon nap. Somewhere nearby in the vicinity was his kill, which he would proceed to eat at night and the day after.