A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in it's entirety. . . I believe in photography as one means of achieving an ultimate happiness and faith! - Ansel Adams

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Tigers of Ranthambhore National Park, India


“A Tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated – as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support – India will be the [sic] poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.”
 – Jim Corbett, Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944)

For a slide show of complete set of pictures of the Royal Bengal Tiger please click here.


Ranthambhore National Park…One of India’s premier and most filmed abodes of the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris Tigris – India’s National animal), Ranthambhore National Park (also spelled as Ranthambore National Park), is located in the State of Rajasthan near Sawai Madhopur city. Located at the meeting point of Aravali and Vindhya mountain ranges, this tiger reserve houses about 35-40 tigers (latest census numbers are yet to be declared). Essentially a dry deciduous forest, it is littered with wide ranging topography – open grasslands, rocky mountains, meadows, gentle sloping mountains, Chambal and Banas rivers, and three lakes – Padam, Rajbagh and Malik. The once impregnable tenth century Rajput fort, called the Ranthambhore Fort, overlooks the vast expanse of the forest from atop the mountain. This unique blend of history, changing terrains and wildlife lends Ranthambhore its mystique and aura.

Embarking on our journey…Over the years I had heard a lot about the wonderful tiger sightings in the park, tales of its famous tigers like the Machali, and seen innumerable pictures and videos. I was chafing at the bit and finally decided to visit it in the first week of May 2010, despite warnings from friends and relatives about the heat in Rajasthan. We boarded the August Kranti Rajdhani from Mumbai for Sawai Madhopur and thus began our eventful journey. I begin the narration below from our first tiger safari…

First Day No Show…Fresh from the visit to Ranthambhore Fort in the morning, we were all set for our first tiger safari in the afternoon. We were allotted Zone 5 for this trip (zone allotments are randomly done my the computer) . Even though we knew that sighting a tiger is a matter of chance and needs loads of patience, our gut was filled with excitement and anticipation. The afternoon heat of Rajasthani summer was a trivial matter. The sight of a carnivore was all that we wanted. With poor rains last year and summer at its peak, the forest wore a coat of yellow and brown, trees were naked and water holes were scarce. This setting was perfect for a tiger sighting as not only we could see through the woods, we also knew the tiger would have to come to those limited water holes to quench his thirst or cool himself or feast on the prey.




Our hearts would start racing at the mere sight of pugmarks. Sights of Common Langurs (Hanuman Monkey) making faces and jumping around, herds of Sambar Deers, Chitals (Spotted Deers), and a few Nilgais (Blue Bull) grazing and drinking at the water holes kept our spirits buoyed. Birds provided the music. The jungle was wild and alive all around. We toured the whole of Zone 5, checked out all water holes and probable areas where a tiger had been sighted earlier. We drew a blank! We even ventured near a spot, which we were told was the abode of a tiger that only few weeks ago had killed a man nearby. Gulp! To put things straight, the man had apparently ventured into restricted area for his donkey to graze. Sensing easy prey, the tiger attacked the donkey, and the man, in his attempt to save his beast of burden, interfered in the proceedings. Irritated, the tiger in a fit of rage probably decided to take the man down. We sensed, as we neared the spot, that there was a tiger nearby…the atmosphere was pregnant with it…he was probably seeing us, but we couldn’t spot him!

We had to draw solace from the sight of deers, langurs and plenty of beautiful birds including the National Bird of India - Indian Peafowl (Peacock). We reluctantly exited the park with the hope that we had four more tiger safaris to go and that a new day would probably herald a new beginning.

Oh! Lord Ganesha!…For the morning safari on Day 2 we were once again allotted Zone 5. Though disappointed, we said alright who knows we might spot it this time around, after all tigers do reside in this zone. We spotted a mongoose on our way in and my friend Desh Bandhu Vaid joked that if we spot one more mongoose then it would be a good augury for tiger sighting. Alas, it was not to be. To say the least – “it was an encore of previous one”. We drew blank again and had to draw solace from the sight of pugmarks of a Sloth Bear, a Red-headed Vulture, Oriental White-eye, Common Hoopoe, Indian Silverbill, dancing langurs and many other beautiful birds. My bird count soared to 50 at the end of this safari.

Things now began to get interesting as we heard tales of tiger sightings in other zones and had to suffer the ignominy of the hotel staff at the breakfast table giving us puzzled looks on learning we couldn’t sight a tiger even after two trips to the park. I thought may be we were being unlucky because we didn’t offer obeisance at the Ganesha temple at the fort on the previous day (being a Wednesday and that too some special Wednesday, thousands of devotees had converged at the temple and not wanting to spend hours in the queue, we decided to give the temple a miss!!!).

Fishing for Machali…Our journey into the Zone 4 for our third tiger safari began in the afternoon on a more sombre note as we had lowered our expectations by several notches. We were the first to enter the zone – an important factor if you want to enjoy the sight of a tiger from a vantage point longer than others and before he is disturbed by the sound of other vehicles and its noisy passengers. This time around we were really enjoying the sight of deers (including the shy and rare Chinkara or the Indian Gazelle), dancing peacocks, songs of the birds, the woods, rocky mountains, et al. The terrain here was quite difficult and as we checked out one water hole after another we were getting a feeling that we might end up drawing a blank again. But this is jungle. Things can suddenly and always unexpectedly happen! And the animal we were looking for was the king of the jungle! An unpredictable beast of prey!

As we were returning after checking out the remotest point of the zone, we neared a spot called Addi Dagar and immediately heard a tiger alarm call. We rushed to the spot and lo behold found the 13 year old Machali Tigress cooling herself in the pond. Now Machali is one legend of a tigress of Ranthambhore, perhaps the most popular in the world, and also goes by the moniker "Lady of the Lakes". With a body of the size of a male, this award winning tigress is known for her dare devilry (such as killing huge crocodiles). After all she is the daughter of the original Empress of Ranthambhore National Park, who was also called Machali. Even at this grand old age and without her canines she is able to hunt by breaking the backs of her prey by jumping on them!

The feeling of sighting a tiger at last (almost towards the end of the third safari) is indescribable. And even more indescribable is the sight of a tiger, a legendary one that too! Soon Machali raised herself and started walking out of water and our driver deftly manoeuvred the gypsy (jeep) towards a spot Machali would walk to. This expert anticipation came from my friend and the Guru of Ranthambhore Desh Bandhu Vaid who was travelling with us. We got her full frontal view as she walked towards us. The other gypsies were only following her, watching her backside, and we merrily clicked away pictures. Soon thereafter she vanished into the woods and we all burst into animated conversation about the whole experience. The graceful walk, the shining coat, the steely gaze and the overall ferocity in her face…It’s a surreal feeling! At one point in time she was just a “foot” away from our gypsy. We could have shaked hands with her. A lady in the backseat screamed and my wife closed her eyes at that moment!


We rode out of the park gazing at the setting sun, with the feeling yet to sink in! Our luck had changed…for sure.

Tiger watching in the lap of heritage…As we sauntered out of our hotel rooms at 5:30 AM on Day 3 for the morning safari, little did we expect how eventful the day would turn out to be. The moment our gypsy reached the entrance of Zone 3 we got a message from the forest officer that tiger alarm calls were being heard near the Padam Lake. We rushed our gypsy towards Jogi Mahal (built overlooking the scenic Padam Talao and near India’s second largest Banyan tree) and saw the three year old tigress Sundari (T-17), daughter of Machali, taking a leisurely walk on the banks of Padam Lake. Sensing the direction of her walk, my friend anticipated that the tigress would walk out of the lake and emerge on the approach road to Zone 3. The driver drove the gypsy along the approach road and we saw the tigress emerge out on the hill to our right. This time again we got to enjoy her full frontal view as she strode out on the road, glanced around and finally disappeared into the woods to our left. We were truly blessed!
 

We now ventured to tour the Zone 3. Zone 3 is the most scenic of all zones (total five) of Ranthambore National Park. One gets spectacular views of the Padam Lake, Rajbagh Lake and the once invincible Ranthambhore Fort atop the mountain. The lakes are prime locations for spotting several crocodiles and birds like the – Painted Stork, Great Egret, Cormorants, Sandpipers, Great thick-knee, Little Heron, Black-headed Ibis, Brahminy duck, Darter, etc. During the course of the drive, the forest guide in our gypsy developed a stomach upset and we had to return to the entrance to drop him. On the way we spotted a Black-headed Ibis on the banks of Rajbagh Lake and decided we would return to photograph it after dropping the guide. As we returned to the spot later, we heard a tiger alarm call go. We turned our heads and saw the three and a half year old T-28 Star male tiger emerge stealthily from the dry grasses, ambling along the banks of Rajbagh Lake. Out for his customary morning walk I guess! The tiger drank some water from the lake, patrolled the area and later emerged on the vehicle track. Like on previous occasions, this tiger too obliged us with some great pictures and finally walked away to rest inside the King’s Hunting Palace on the other side of Rajbagh Lake.
 
Thrilled to the core, we were returning back thanking our luck for managing two tiger sightings in a single trip. Guess what?, Sundari reappeared on the track. She marked her territory and then disappeared into the woods – third sighting, gee!. Back to the hotel we raised a toast to the lady luck that was shining upon us as brightly as the Rajasthan sun.

Saving the best for the last…After a sumptuous lunch we embarked on our final tiger safari before we left for another jungle, albeit a concrete one…Mumbai in the night. Our entry into Zone 2 was greeted by the sight of a Shikra and a baby crocodile lying submerged in a small water hole. This time too we were the first to enter the zone. And this effort was amply rewarded. We heard alarm calls as we neared a water hole and sped towards it to see the two year old Sultanpur tigress lying lazily near the pool of water (10 meters below from where we stood) in the company of Cormorants, Common Kingfisher and a White browed Fantail. Being the first and only ones thus far to sight her, we had full five minutes of uninterrupted view of her from a position of our choice before others joined in. She would intermittently raise her head, glance around, fix her steely gaze upon us, yawn, sip some water and then just lie about.


However, we kept hearing the original alarm calls from Peacocks, Sambar Deers and Langurs from about 100 metres away. Instantly we knew that all that glitters is not gold, sometimes it could even be platinum! There was another tiger nearby (yet to appear in sight) and something was going to happen – a territorial fight? may be mating? We would be blessed to see any of this and capture it in our cameras. We heard the rustling of the dry leaves and turned our heads leftward to see the six/seven year old T-12 tiger stride down from the hill towards the water hole.

The tigress immediately stood up, taking note of the presence of a competitor, and for a few moments stared at the male tiger and then slumped back to her resting posture. We were puzzled! What the heck, a surrender? We looked closely at the T-12 male using our binoculars and saw that he was injured near his left eye. He had had a fight before and so he wouldn’t fight now, so why the surrender? Would they mate? Desh Bandhu now told me that the tigress was probably too young to mate and would perhaps think of procreation only after a year. We then realised that T-12 is the father of this Sultanpur tigress and may be she just bowed in deference or may be they just had a pact on sharing the water hole. We couldn’t say anything for sure. Everyone was puzzled.
 

Nothing happened for another ten minutes. The T-12 male walked down to the water hole, drank some water, lay in it lazily for a few minutes and walked back to a spot nearby where he lied probably for the rest of the day. We decided to take a tour inside the zone and comeback to this spot later. The driver was anxious to mark his attendance at the chowkie (forest station) inside. This zone is known for leopard (Panthera Pardus) sightings and we thought who knows we may get to see another carnivore. On our way we saw a leopard kill – a half eaten Spotted Deer (Chital). We knew the leopard was around and was monitoring his kill and probably us too. But we couldn’t spot him. While returning from the chowkie another gypsy passed by us and its driver told us “sahib, neeche majedar bhalu dikh raha hai” (Sir, there is a nice Sloth Bear show going on down the road). We knew the bear was probably gone by now since no gypsy driver would lose sight of one only to report it to others. And true to our hunch we didn’t sight any.

As we turned towards our spot (where the Sultanpur tigress was resting) we saw an unsuspecting Sambar Deer venture slowly towards the water hole. The far away gypsies motioned towards us to stop dead in our tracks, lest we disturb either the predator or the prey. They were seeing the tigress stalking the deer and we the deer moving towards certain death. We cursed ourselves for having moved away from the spot as the tigress was now out of sight. But the deer was in sight and if a kill happened we would see it and that would be the highlight of the trip. We waited with bated breath for action to unfold. As fate would have it, the Sambar Deer spotted the tigress and immediately ran for his life. The hungry tigress now emerged in front of us on the vehicle track to once again give us a good frontal view. Light was now falling quickly. We shot pictures in burst, saw the tigress mark her territory and after following her for a while decided to go back near the water hole to take some pictures of the T-12 male tiger.
 

It was past 6.00 PM and we had to now rush for the exit as staying in the park beyond 6:30 PM would attract penalty for the gypsy. We bid goodbye to the two tigers and to the Ranthambore National Park and drove out enjoying the setting sun, which was looking lovely as a dust storm loomed on the horizon.
 

We had come hoping to see tigers – even one would have been fine, even if we got to see its tail would have been OK for us. But in the jungle it’s all a matter of luck. If you respect it, it may reward you. Nobody ever returned empty handed from the courts of Rajput Kings….neither did we. We had five excellent tiger sightings (including Machali who may be gone by the time we visit next) and a bird count of 70 over three days and would be the envy of many of our friends. At night we boarded the train to Mumbai and all through the journey the memories of the beautiful park, its residents and the people of Sawai Madhopur lingered on our minds and continues to this date and time….I am already thinking of going back again…Long live the Tigers of Ranthambhore!
 
Travel tip: In case you are planning to visit Ranthambhore National Park, I would highly recommend you contact these folks - http://quintet.in/tours/weekends-with-tigers/. They are experts in wildlife tourism and did a fantastic job in arranging my trip. Ranthambhore is easily doable over a three day weekend and the best part is that safari bookings can also be done online! Nearest rail-head is Sawai Madhopur (14 kms) and nearest airport is Jaipur (132 kms). I would also take the liberty and suggest you brave the heat and visit the park in Summer. You won’t regret it, we didn’t!
   

11 comments:

The Legend Returns said...

Have reposted this article under a new url and hence the old comments have disappeared. Personal apologies to those wonderful people who left behind their valuable comments. Don't worry...they have registered in my heart :)

latika said...

This was breathtaking. I truly envy you for experiencing all this.Great pictures. Keep it up.-latika

The Legend Returns said...

Thanks so much Latika for those kind words and Welcome to my blog!

Mayank said...

i have to go to ranthambore - maybe if i am lucky with my leaves this summer itself. will may end be good time? also from what it looks telephoto is not needed if she is walking 2 feet from you but nonetheless what was your gear. did i tell you - you have just fantastic photographs.

The Legend Returns said...

@Mayank: Hey thanks so much... feeling a bit embarrassed now :-p
May is the "best" time to go... cause as the heat increases and water bodies dry up, the tigers come out to visit the limited water points (limited points increase your probability) and the jungle is also a lot drier thereby aiding your visibility! Further, nonsense crowd is absent owing to the heat and only serious folks will be there...so you can enjoy safaris without bothering about who might be sitting next to you!
Telephoto is advisable (I used the Nikkor 70-300mm lens) unless you get lucky as I did. If you do 5-7 safaris you will probably have a better chance of not requiring a large focal length.. but atleast 200mm is a must!

P.S. - this year there were bountiful rains and monsoon extended till Jan... so water is abundant!

Puru@ShadowsGalore said...

The first photograph is an epic ! Thoroughly liked going through this post and am glad to be at your blog.

Regards
Puru

The Legend Returns said...

@Puru: Thanks so much for visiting my blog :) I am glad you liked the post. Thanks again!

Alam said...

Nice Article! Thanks for sharing with us.

About Corbett National Park

Alam said...

Nice Article! Thanks for sharing with us.

About Corbett National Park

Nilima Shah said...

Thanks for sharing Interesting post. Thanks for taking this opportunity to discuss this, I appreciate with this and I like learning about this subject. If possible, as you gain information, please update this blog with more information. I have found it really useful.
Regards
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Ranthambore National Park said...

wow classic post, thanks for taking to sharing post with us, its a good post and you had shared it publically. Keep doing the same

Thanks

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