India is justifiably known as THE place to see Tiger. At the turn of the last century, this magnificent predator ranged throughout much of Asia, from Turkey to Bali and north into Russia. Myriad threats have greatly reduced the population, and in the past century the Tiger has disappeared from over 90% of that range. It now persists in just isolated pockets, and only in a few of these are there still high densities. The majority of the world’s Tigers are in India, where a vigorous conservation scheme has developed several protected areas. But just a handful of the Indian parks offer a good chance of actually seeing the cat, owing to their more open nature, skilled trackers, and the habituation of the cats to vehicles.
Of these, arguably the best is Ranthambore National Park. Located in the southern part of the arid state of Rajasthan, dominated by the impressive Ranthambore Fort, built over a thousand years ago, the park now forms the north-western limit of the Tiger’s range. Ranthambore is cloaked in dry forests comprised largely of the tree Butea monosperma, also known as ‘Flame of the Forest’. During the monsoon season, the hills are alive with orange blooms and greenery. Most, however, will visit this park during the dry season, when the trees are bare and the greenery (and wildlife) is concentrated around the park’s ample water supplies.
Because of the abundance of water features, this area has always sustained an enormous density of wildlife. A favored hunting area of the Maharajas of Jaipur, the area gained formal protection in 1973 under Project Tiger. At that time, about 150 km2 was formally protected. In the years since, the park has continually expanded, and now has a core zone plus buffer zone tallying over 1300 km2.
Ranthambore is the most easily accessible Tiger reserve for the international visitor, and is one of the reserves where chances of a sighting are highest, so tourism is a critical element for the preservation of this area and explains why the park has been able to expand. A visit to the park will typically be over a few days and include both morning and afternoon safaris. All visits to the park are made by jeep, and the park is divided into 10 zones. There are strict limits on the number of vehicles in each zone, and this limits congestion at a Tiger sighting – an important consideration on deciding which Tiger reserve to visit!
A typical day at Ranthambore will start pre-dawn, with breakfast at the lodge. Boarding your jeep, you will spend the morning in your allotted zone before returning for some downtime during the heat of the day, and lunch. You will return to the park and explore a different zone from mid-afternoon until dusk, and return to the lodge for dinner. The focus of most drives, of course, is to see a Tiger. On some nights it might also be possible to arrange a nocturnal excursion.
Tiger populations ebb and flow within the park. This is partly a natural population dynamic, but has also been a product of poaching. In 2005, the population in the park reached a worrying low of 26. Increased protection in recent years has seen the population recover very well, and at the time of writing it now sits at 68 animals! This makes for a very good chance of a quality sighting.
You will be with a driver and tracker team on every outing, and they will not only know all the Tigers by name, but also their recent movements and the best places and strategies to seek them out. Staring into the yellow eyes of one of the world’s most revered predators and have it staring back at you ranks as one of the ultimate life experiences of even the most experienced traveling naturalist.
Of course, actually watching Tigers will take up only a small percentage of your time inside the park, but there will always be something interesting to look at. The prey base of the big cats is made up of extremely high densities of two deer species: Chital and Sambar, plus Wild Boar. More open areas support good numbers of Nilgai and Chinkara, two attractive antelope species. These ungulates are usually in mixed herds and frequently accompanied by Northern Plains Langur. In Tiger country, it pays to have as many eyes looking out as possible, and if a large predator is spotted, an alarm call will go up alerting all the animals in the area. Indeed, listening out for these alarm calls can be one of the best ways to find the big cat ourselves!
A visit to the park of a few days will increase the odds of finding some of the scarcer predators. The rocky hills of Ranthambore harbor a rather high density of Leopard, although it does take a good dose of luck to see these shy and beautiful big cats. More nocturnal than Tigers, they are adept at taking slightly smaller prey than their larger cousins. Often sleeping high in a tree by day, it is worth checking the larger limbs of trees or hoping for a chance sighting, especially during the early morning and late afternoon periods.
Another species high on most visitors’ wish lists is Sloth Bear. Despite a rather fearsome appearance and reputation, these impressive carnivores are actually insectivorous. Termites form the most important part of their diet, and they will also climb up very tall trees to eat honey and get at fruits like mangos. Finding a Sloth Bear also takes a heavy dose of luck, but it certainly pays to be on the lookout, especially in the areas where termite mounds are abundant!
Ranthambore has a long list of other carnivores. Most of these are nocturnal or crepuscular. Chance sightings could occur during dusk and dawn on your safaris, or it might be possible to head out for a nocturnal foray outside of the national park. Some species that could be seen, with luck, include Striped Hyena, Jungle Cat, Caracal, Bengal Fox and Honey Badger.
In addition to numerous smaller mammals, the park has a list of nearly 300 species of birds and lots of other interesting wildlife, from Mugger Crocodiles to huge Flapshell Turtles. Regardless of your interests, it is hard to argue that there is a better place to go on a Tiger safari than Ranthambore National Park!
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