It was a hot, windy Saturday afternoon when I saw him for the first time. Cooling himself in a pond, he carried an air of indifference, seemingly unfazed by the constant gaze of so many pairs of eyes. Well, he (aptly named Sultan) couldn’t care less and why would he also – he was the king of the jungle, after all, and we were in his den. Sitting in an open jeep we, on the other hand, were both terrified and excited.
Intrigued by his cool demeanor I looked at Raj, our guide in the Ranthambore National Park, for an answer. “Tigers here have grown up getting used to the human presence. Moreover, once you are inside a vehicle, they perceive you and the vehicle put together as one big object – something which has never harmed them.” he explained matter-of-factly.
Even without any phone connectivity inside the park, news still spreads like wildfire; it had taken just 10 minutes for 7 jeeps and 2 canters to assemble after the first jeep had spotted him. Along with the strong verbal communication network among guides, their deep understanding about the tigers’s behaviour also helps. Basically, after killing a prey tigers usually stay in the area, identified as ‘zones’ in the park, for two-three days. This information, along with cues from the local guards, assist guides in locating the big cats.
Raj then asked us to be quiet and concentrate on the movement of the tiger. It was he who had insisted on waiting, when all the other canters and jeeps left after waiting nearly 45 min for him to show some signs of life. The tiger, rising up from the small pond, stretched, and started strolling dispassionately in our direction. I had a brief eye-contact with him, or wait, was I imagining it? Nevertheless, continuing his leisurely gait he crossed the road just two feet behind us, and moved to the opposite part of the jungle. I could have touched him, he was that close. Were these the moments for which we had travelled 350 Kms in sweltering summer or for the Dutch lady in our jeep, much more?
At the end of the day, fascination with the national animal of India transcends borders. As Hobbes, they were a voice of rationality and wisdom in contrast with the dreamy Calvin. As Shere Khan, they were menacing, spreading terror and fear among the jungle inhabitants. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that respondents from 73 countries chose tiger as their favourite animal in an Animal Planet survey. Perhaps, tigers invoke qualities which we all desire deep within – ferocity, strength and aggression.
And possibly, these qualities are what led to their demise making them an endangered species. At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of tigers in India was estimated to be 1,00,000. Other than widespread poaching and shrinking habitat – prevalent issues everywhere – it was hunting which took down the number to a lowly 1411 in 2006. Hunting was a royal sport among Princes and Britishers in colonial India – the more tigers you killed, the more manly you became. Fortunately, hunting was banned by the Indian Government in 1970 leading to creation of 25 tiger reserves with Ranthambore being one of them. Efforts towards conserving tigers have not only boosted the number to 2226 in 2015 census (accounting to 70% of world’s tiger population), but also resulted in booming the local economy.
Locals like Raj understand the correlation between conservation and economy. Apart from their regular salary, they earn money in tips, which can be significant if tiger sighting was successful. The equation is simple – more tigers, more tourists – thus providing alternative livelihood for people in a town with limited employment opportunities. Tourists, especially foreigners, take multiple safaris to increase the probability of tiger sightings. We had only planned two safaris during our weekend visit, but we met so many serious wildlife enthusiasts who came for a week’s duration and more. The more, the merrier clearly seemed to be the mantra here.
In a town clearly obsessed with tigers with the first question being, “Did you spot one today?” followed by “How many safaris so far?”, what do you do when luck is not with you? While spotting a tiger in our first safari ever was definitely the highlight of the trip, there was enough flora and fauna to keep us hooked otherwise also. In both safaris, we spotted Chital (spotted deer), crocodile, Nilgai, peacock, Sambhar deer and lots of birds. In addition to abundant wildlife, the ever-changing landscape with presence of dry trees, grassy meadows, and lakes, make the park a photographer’s delight.
Exhausted by two days of bumpy rides in the forest, it was time to slow down a bit and head to the Ranthambore fort. The majestic fort, built anywhere between 8th and 10th century AD according to different sources, gives a panoramic view of the entire park. The fort, though mostly in ruins, also houses important temples for people practicing Hinduism and Jainism.
We hired a local guide, for palaces and forts are no fun if you don’t know the story behind them. A man in his 50s, Sewalal, had once walked freely here, before it got converted into a national park. While he earnestly tried to interest us in the valor of the Rajputs against Delhi sultanate, we were still recovering from the ‘Tiger hangover’. And thus for the next 1.5 hours, he told us countless entertaining tales of his folks’ encounters with the tigers and leopards while we explored the fort. His stories made us appreciate the equal status he assigned to the animals – he was not afraid of them, he did not place them on a reverential pedestal, and most importantly, he felt no sense of superiority over them.
And this is precisely what I took back from Ranthambore – living in harmony with nature, without crossing the boundaries. We all know the importance of adopting an eco-friendly life, but never before had I realized the effect of my lifestyle choices on nature in general, and wildlife in particular. Let’s contribute our bit, otherwise the time is not far when tigers will become a thing of the legends, and our generation will only fondly remember that once upon a time ek tha tiger.