On the trail of Asia's most notoriously elusive big cat
As we set off into the dark, it’s not just the crisp night air that sends a chill down my spine. Excitement and fear rush over me while the words from a David Attenborough documentary play out in my head: ‘Until human beings devised weapons for themselves, this was the most powerful killer on Earth, the top predator… few creatures could escape it, nothing could threaten it.’ I’ve seen enough close-up shots of their powerful fangs, muscular bodies and the lethal grace with which they stalk their prey to feel a strong sense of apprehension as we set off in search of tigers in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park. It doesn’t help that the safari jeep we’re in feels very open to the elements, with no windows or roof.
But I know I’m in safe hands with the experienced guide sent by Sher Bagh, the resort I’m staying in.
The jeep tears down rough, potholed dirt tracks, deeper and deeper into the park. At first the only thing I can make out is the silhouette of branches against the pale blue, pre-dawn sky. I imagine shadows flitting between the trees and the crackle of paws on dry grass. Remembering that the Bengal tiger’s night vision is six times better than my own, I look over my shoulder. Are we being followed? Sunrise floods the sky with pinkish hues and reveals a landscape of amber leaves and ochre earth. In such scenery, it’s easy to understand why the tiger is coloured as it is.
Suddenly the driver goes quiet. All four passengers in the jeep, including myself, hold our breath in anticipation. But it’s only a deer. Still, it’s a sambar – one of the world’s biggest – standing proudly at around two metres tall. With its huge, thick, branchlike antlers, it’s an impressive sight. I only realise quite how big they are when I later spy a herd of spotted deer, which are half the size. They have with them a couple of frolicking fawns, fragile babies that I realise might soon be tiger lunch.
The rest of the morning brings more exciting wildlife spottings: gargantuan sambar stags locking horns, kingfishers and storks strutting beside a large lake and more peacocks than I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see again. Their flashes of iridescent blue are an almost constant backdrop to our expedition. But we fail to catch even a glimpse of a tiger. I remind myself that this isn’t a zoo. There are as few as 3,200 tigers worldwide, according to the WWF. India is home to around 70 percent of them. More than 40 Bengal tigers prowl the forests of Ranthambore, but the reserve’s ample 400 square kilometre grounds mean sightings are not always guaranteed. However, it’s still one of the best places to spot tigers in India.
All feelings of disappointment vanish during my afternoon trip to Ranthambore Fort, the Unesco World Heritage Site that gives the wildlife reserve its name. Once the haunt of the maharajas of Jaipur, this red-stone fortress is now over-run with peacocks and long-tailed langur monkeys. Perched high at the top of a hill, the crumbling, atmospheric structure affords magnificent views of the national park below. We sit on a blanket in one of the Mughal arches and unwrap a picnic of chai tea and home-made biscuits prepared for us by the chefs at Sher Bagh.
Admiring the fluffy clouds reflecting in the lake down below, and watching the monkeys play a game of leapfrog, it’s hard not to feel like a maharaja, surveying his kingdom.
Back at the resort, leafing through a coffee table book, I spot of a picture of a tiger cowering under one of the fort’s pavilions during the rainy season. Once again, my thoughts return to tracking down this elusive big cat. I resolve to try one more safari outing the next morning.
A couple of hours into our second safari, we’ve witnessed flocks of bright green parakeets and large leathery crocodiles sunning themselves on rocks beside a creek – but still no tigers. Earlier in the afternoon, our guide came across some faeces, still fresh enough to indicate that a tiger was nearby.
But this tantalising moment of hope didn’t materialise into an actual sighting.
Then, just as we start to turn back, our guide’s radio buzzes. Suddenly the jeep is off, roaring down the dirt path. Other jeeps have been informed, too, and we jostle for a place at the bottom of a long ridge.
Our guide points excitedly and shoves a pair of binoculars in my direction. Holding them up, I finally see what I’ve been waiting for: the proud orange and black stripes of what Attenborough calls the ‘Lord of the Land’. It’s quite some distance away at the top of the hill, and partially obscured by the log it is lying beside. But still, it’s a thrill to see this incredible animal and – just as thrillingly – to know that it’s probably spied me, too.
Need to know
Getting there Fly Dubai flies direct from Dubai to Delhi from Dhs1,211 return. www.flydubai.com. From Delhi, Jet Airways, IndiGo, Air India and SpiceJet all fly to Jaipur, which is a two-hour train trip or four-to-five-hour drive away from Ranthambore. Alternatively, it’s a five-hour train journey from Delhi to the nearest station, Sawai Madhopur.