The aggressive squawking woke me from slumber.
I opened my eyes and peered drowsily at a dark net surrounding me. I groped out of bed, unable to recall where I was until my feet hit the cold floor. I shook the mosquito net off my shoulders and shuffled to the window. The sky was still a pale silver-pink when I opened the wooden shutters, but the sound of happy screeches surged into the room. I squinted up at the towering silhouette of dark trees gently swaying in the morning breeze. Macaques cascaded from the heights, easily gliding from branch to branch. It was their excited calls that had awakened me. I was at a safari lodge in Ranthambore National Park in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. The chill air wafted the scent of camellias and jasmine into the room. I sniffed excitedly and turned to prepare myself for my mission. I had only three hours to find one of the most magnificent creatures in the world: the Bengal tiger.
Ever since reading Jim Corbett’s “Man Eaters of Kumaon,” I’ve been fascinated with the lore of Bengal tigers. While spending years in the wilds of Uttar Pradesh, Corbett wrote fascinating accounts of tigers and their interactions with local villages. His thrilling stories were the reason I rearranged my India trip for an overnight stay and single safari tour at Ranthambore. My departure from Delhi yesterday hadn’t gone smoothly: the heat and dust of the crowded city had made me sick, and my ride to the park had been delayed by traffic. Once on the road, the 362 kilometer drive (225 miles) was an endless stream of honking horns and backseat sweat as we inched through the clogged roads and dirt tracks of northern India. When I finally arrived after sunset to Ranthambore, the humming crickets and flickering fireflies were a welcome contrast. Thankful for the cool darkness surrounding the lodge and a clean bed, I immediately fell asleep, unbelievably exhausted. That night I dreamed I was tracking tigers with Captain Corbett among the lush forests and grassy plains of Ranthambore’s national park.
Since my time was severely limited, I was eager to make every moment count on my three hour safari ride. Ranthambore tiger reserve covers an area of thirteen hundred square kilometers (502 square miles), but the park owns less than fifty tigers. This means that the chances of spotting one of these beauties is rare. My chances were scarcer since I only had one safari tour in which to catch sight of the elusive creature. I knew that long before I arrived at the reserve, but my hopes were pinned high. To increase the chances of a tiger sighting, the park had scheduled my tour at first light when the stealthy cats came out to hunt. I finished my traditional Indian breakfast of puffy Indian bread, chickpea and tomato, and spicy cucumber salad while black faced langurs jauntily waved their tails and played tag with each other on the front verandah. I would have loved to join them, but I had a more important task at hand, since my ride was here. My expedition was about to begin! I shook hands with the friendly driver and tracker and climbed aboard the open top jeep. Four other guests from the park smiled sleepily from the back seat as I joined them on our early morning adventure.
Hunting for Stripes
As we left the lodge for the main gates, I asked about the chances of seeing the famed tiger. The tracker smiled and reassured me that the morning weather being cool and mild was a propitious sign for us. I smiled back exuberant and leaned forward in my seat as the jeep entered a low stone wall through a grand archway. A pair of proud peacocks, their feathers in glorious display, greeted us at the entrance way and I felt it was another promising omen. We were finally inside the domain of the Bengal tiger. Any moment now, there would be a chance that I could see a tiger, eyes burning bright, in the forests ahead. As we began our journey through open road I saw that the sky had broken into a coral shade while tiny babblers whirled over our heads and chirped gaily. The air felt invigorating, and sitting at the end of the back seat I had only to reach out my hand to touch the tips of branches and twigs that brushed past our jeep. I had never been so exposed to a true wilderness and I felt exhilarated by the experience.
Rapidly, the forest closed in and the jeep was soon wrapped in a thicket of branches. Sounds were muffled and it seemed as if the whole area waited for something. I started as a sudden rush of wings took flight and waking birds cried out sharply. I looked around for signs of a tiger, but the driver smiled amusedly and explained that it was the noise of the jeep that caused the birds to raise the alarm. We wended our way into a quiet cove and I spotted a flash of amber colored hide. The jeep stopped in its tracks and my heart skipped a beat. Was it a tiger? Seconds later a graceful sambar, its swirling antlers reared high, stepped into the clearing. I marveled at its majestic pose, but felt a chill of disappointment. As we continued on, thick trees gave way to short brush and less cover. A stifled movement caught my eye and I gasped. Did I just spot a marbled hue in the undergrowth? Yes, but it was not what I hoped. A black francolin trotted off through the grass, indignant at our approach. Our jeep swung through twisting dirt tracks, while the tracker kept his eyes glued to the ground for signs of tiger. Eventually we came upon the tenth century ruins of Ranthambore fort which overlooks the park expanse. Long ago, rajas once spent lazy summer afternoons relaxing at the luxurious fortress after a day of hunting. Today, the ruins of the palace and various kingly pavilions scattered throughout the park give Ranthambore an air of antiquated beauty. During our brief rest stop here, I climbed one of the smaller ramparts to survey the scenery. I could see that the park was located at the edge of a plateau and enclosed by two rivers. From the castle remains Ranthambore’s landscape unfolded from thick forest, to grassy plains with smooth lakes beyond. Yet, there was no glimmer of black and tawny stripes as I scanned the expanse. Though the vista was stunning, for me the highlight of the park would be a sighting of its scant and evasive tiger.
The safari tour was almost over and though we spied many interesting sights, we hadn’t spotted a single tawny and black stripe. While I had learned to identify the paw print and scent of the Bengal tiger, the jeep ride had been a roller coaster for my emotions, and I felt exhausted. It seemed the evasive animal wanted to display its presence without being seen. Then suddenly, a call came through to the driver from his CB radio and we roared with speed towards the park gates. Arriving where we were advised as quickly as we could manage, the jeep parked in the middle of the road and the driver shut off the engine. The entire jeep surveyed the area carefully with nervous energy. Were we too late? Did we miss our best and last opportunity to spy our treasure? I stood up in the back of the jeep for a better glimpse as a heavy stillness fell. Then, pushing forth from the corner of a bush this majestic creature sauntered towards us, its head swinging from side to side. The animal paused four and half meters (fifteen feet) away from the jeep and raised its head. I was looking directly into the golden eyes of a Bengal tiger! Mesmerized, I could not look away from the tiger’s stare. My fingers gripped the top of the jeep door tightly. The two of us locked gazes, and time seemed to have stopped still for me, as if nothing else existed. In reality, only a few moments passed before the tiger turned away. Unconcerned, he moved fluidly back into the shade of the black forest depths. With his disappearance, my heart gave a painful jump and began to beat again as I caught my breath. The sound of birds calling returned to the forest, and I sank back down inside the jeep overwhelmed by the experience. My tiger safari had been as adventurous as the stories I’d read. I might never see another tiger in my life, but this one had changed me forever, just as Jim Corbett had promised.
Please be aware that tigers are a vanishing species and tiger conservation efforts today struggle due to lack of resources, tiger trade, and logging. Tiger safaris help the conservation effort as long as they are undertaken by reputable tour operators and authorized by the park. For more information on tiger conservation or to participate in the World Wildlife Fund’s continuing efforts, please visit their website.