Even before I begin writing this one let me confess— No I did not manage any tiger sighting in Ranthambore, not even a glimpse of the ‘large hearted gentleman with boundless courage’. We went there in winters. Local connections, pleading with the safari operators, numerology — I do not know if there is any one assured method that ensures you get to see the tiger in Ranthambore. I would like to believe that it is a matter of luck and leave it at that.
We left Delhi on a winter night by an overnight train to Sawai Madhopur, the nearest station to Ranthambore. While I prefer road journeys, this one was an overnight train and we reached Sawai Madhopur early morning. A quick cup of tea outside the railway station and we dumped our bags in a local rickshaw that took us to our hotel — Ranthambore Heritage Haveli. The distance between Ranthambore and Sawai Madhopur is about 10 km and Ranthambore Heritage Haveli is located adjacent to the tiger reserve.
Quite like everyone who heads to this jungle with the sole aim of tiger sighting in Ranthambore, we were eager to find out how and when the next jungle safari is scheduled. Most hotel owners in Ranthambore have tie ups with safari organisers who arrange either a Canter — an open roof bus which accommodates 20 passengers — or a Gypsy, a jeep that is more private and accommodates 6-7 individuals. We were told that the next safari will leave at 4 pm and we decided to book one immediately.
The Ranthambore tiger reserve is divided into various zones and in one trip, the safari covers only one zone. For another zone, you may have to catch another safari. “Will we get to see the tiger?” Our question to the tour operated met with a smile and then a response — “Sher to sir jungle ka raaja hain. Jahan marzee ho chala jaata hain. Ye to luck ki baat hain,” he said. It took us time to realise the dynamics that go behind these simple lines.
At 4 pm, the Canter picked us up from our hotel and took us to the reserve. The reserve has a main gate and individual gates for zones within the area. The Canter took a right turn and started climbing a hilly terrain. Thick jungle and rich and abundant flora and fauna — a tiger habitat is peculiar. The Canter continued through treacherous terrain and halted at places where we spotted a lonely Neelgai (Bluebull) or a Sambhar deer or at points a happy team of Spotted deer and Chinkaras. There was, however, no trace of the tiger. While the group of tourists on the Canter including us were curiously looking around hoping for a glimpse of yellow- black stripes, our guide, for some reason, looked relaxed and assured that there is no tiger on this route. He was getting some calls on the walkie-talkie and it looked as if he was coordinating with fellow guides on different routes to find out if there was a tiger sighting anywhere.
For about two hours, the Canter wandered through the wild. The initial excitement of sighting a Chinkara, Nilgai or a Spotted deer had died down by the time we were half way through the trip. The point is — Ranthambore is about the tiger and the desperation to sight a tiger just envelopes any excitement to sight other animals in the wild. At about 6.30 pm, the Canter dropped us back to the hotel. Day one gone. We had not seen the tiger. But the journalist within us kept prompting that there has to be something beyond “just chance” to sight a tiger. What if a VVIP comes for a visit? Will the administration send him without having sighted a tiger? We now wanted to find out what it was that ensured a tiger sighting!
Administrative office: where zones are allotted to safari operators
We made a few calls, one to someone in the local administration, another to a wildlife researcher and finally learnt that the allotment of zones to jeeps or Canters takes place in the morning at about 4 am. Basis information shared by the forest guards and returning safaris of the earlier evenings, the administration maps the zones where there is a likelihood of spotting a tiger.
The morning scene at the administrative office is chaotic. There are long queues of our operators/ tourists who flood the place to get an allotment of the zone where the probability of sighting a tiger is more. Clueless tourists making frenzied calls, operators who have mastered the art of getting quick access to the counter, tea vendors and food sellers— it is a permanent chaos with tourists as the only new and changing faces. We reached the allotment counter after waiting for about a couple of hours. Could the tour operators be knowing in advance the zone they would be sighting a tiger? Could there be higher, undeclared charges by operators for zones where there is a chance of tiger sighting? Clueless, we had no option but to trust the man on the other side of the allotment window.
We were told that a day before, the tiger had killed a Sambhar on the Zone 4 and Zone 3 border and were advised to go to Zone 4 as the tiger and his cubs were still believed to be near the kill. In that crowded space filled with odours of unbathed drivers, operators and tourists, we did not want to contemplate any further.
Instead of taking a Canter, we decided to take a Jeep and tied up with a local operator. At 6 am, the jeep was at our hotel and with renewed hopes, we headed to the jungle on the chilling winter morning. Zone 4 was different than the area we went a day before. It is a relatively flat area with thick vegetation. En route, we saw a crocodile basking in the sun. The Sambhars and Spotted deer were by now our taken-for-graned friends! The driver was busy coordinating with other safaris in the zone and with every buzz, our hopes of sighting a tiger were getting refreshed. After about 40 minutes of driving, he took us to an area, where a skeleton of a Sambhar carcass was lying. There was no trace of the tiger or the cubs or even a sign of the cats having visited the carcass. “For the past three- four days, the tiger and the cubs were here,” our driver told us. We were late. We returned to the hotel. Over the breakfast, we heard that there was a tiger sighting in Zone 3. Wish we had chosen that!
In the evening, we wasted some time by visiting a local Rajiv Gandhi museum and later went for a walk into the jungle. This time, we did not want to see the tiger. Instead, we wanted to sink into the wilderness. We spent hours near the old remains at the entrance of the jungle and sat by an old dilapidated water reservoir. Monkeys, deer, peacocks and even pug marks — we liked to believe were of the tiger. By the time we concluded our long walk, it was already dark and the jungle looked scary. What if there’s a tiger hiding behind this tree? We definitely did not want to see a tiger now. We had a train to catch and as we loaded our luggage in the auto rickshaw and started our journey towards Sawai Madhopur, were rerouted by a team of policemen who were guarding a local farm. “There’s a tiger hiding here,” we were informed. This was opposite the Rajiv Gandhi museum. We had come here earlier during the day and would have loved to remain by the farm waiting for the cat to show up. But we had a train. True. Tiger sighting is a matter of chance. At times, he evades and when he doesn’t, you are on your way out! And then, as we learnt, some know where the tiger is, but we don’t know how to tap those “some”.
Our suggestion to increase the probability of tiger sighting in Ranthambore:
Book your hotel in advance
Ask your hotel to recommend a safari operator.
Talk to the safari operator in advance and build a rapport with him/ her and book your safari in advance.
Sometimes, it is fine to tip/ reward operators if you feel they are genuinely working towards helping you.
Last but not the least, do bear in mind that tiger sighting can indeed be a matter of luck. Enjoy spending time in the tiger habitat. Afterall, you don’t always take time off your busy schedule and head to nature!
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Disclaimer: Some photographs for this story have been sourced from open sources such as Creative Commons for aesthetic enhancements. TWA does not claim ownership of the same and respects the expertise of individual contributors.