THE UN­LUCKY PRINCE OF RANTHAMBORE

Airports India - - NEWS - PHO­TOS & TEXT: NAVIN M RA­HEJA

The rugged Forests of Ranthambore, the last home­land of the tiger in Ra­jasthan, of­fers views and vis­tas that are starkly dif­fer­ent from any­where else in In­dia. With its mas­sive fort over­look­ing vast for­est stretches, Ranthambore has al­ways been a de­light for wildlife lovers. It beck­ons them from all over the world. Its ter­rain – a mix of im­preg­nable dry, de­cid­u­ous for­est and open bush – has be­come syn­ony­mous with the tiger. It's a say­ing that only the real un­lucky re­turn from Ranthambore with­out sight­ing the ma­jes­tic an­i­mal. There is some­thing rare and un­usual about the big cats that in­habit this na­tional park. They don't mind the cam­eras and to some ex­tent even al­low en­thu­si­as­tic pho­tog­ra­phers to get up close and per­sonal. This land of the tigers is re­plete with sto­ries of the im­pos­ing an­i­mal. One such story is of Us­tad, also called Tiger Num­ber 24 – fe­ro­cious, hand­some, dom­i­nant and, one of the most pho­tographed male tiger of Ranthambore. His ter­ri­tory was Zone Num­ber 1 of the park and he took great pride in rul­ing it. Born to the Ti­gress T-22 some­time in 2005 in Lah­pur area of the park, T-24 grew up with his two brothers, T-23 and T-25.

Us­tad was one of the most fe­ro­cious, hand­some and most pho­tographed male tiger of Ranthambore, who lost all fear of hu­man be­ings and had de­vel­oped the habit of ven­tur­ing out of the for­est quite reg­u­larly, those days, of­ten seen on the Ranthambore road, on the out­skirts of Sawai Mad­hopur town. For a preda­tory species that like to stay clear of hu­mans, this was a rather un­usual be­hav­ior. At times He would even go charg­ing at Jeeps and would chase them away. Once, his paw got pricked by a thorn and be­came in­fected. So he had to be tran­quil­ized and treated. But while the vets were ban­dag­ing his wound, the ef­fect

of the anes­the­sia wore off and Us­tad got up with such a great force that the doc­tors and at­ten­dants fled for their lives, leav­ing their kits be­hind.

Us­tad got up and dashed into the for­est. Some say that en­counter with hu­mans in such close prox­im­ity left him trau­ma­tized and sus­pi­cious build­ing foun­da­tion for his trou­bled fu­ture re­la­tion­ships with hu­mans. But those who have fol­lowed and filmed him closely have also seen his gen­tle side. They have seen him as a dot­ing fa­ther and a lov­ing, loyal mate. At times, I had spot­ted him with Noor (T-39), another mag­nif­i­cent ti­gress in the park.

Us­tad shared his ter­ri­tory with fouryear-old Sul­tan from the first lit­ter of Noor (T-39) and her two male cubs of four­teen months age. At times, all of them could be seen to­gether too. I was al­ways com­fort­able while film­ing and pho­tograph­ing him at a close dis­tance from my gypsy, as I al­ways be­lieved him to be mag­nan­i­mous and harm­less One of my most mem­o­rable en­coun­ters with T-24 was on a mon­soon evening while I was hav­ing my drinks on the lush green lawns of Jhu­mar Baodi – the RTDC run her­itage Haveli sit­u­ated within a short dis­tance of the park. It was still two hours to midnight and si­lence had crept in unan­nounced, as it usu­ally does in places sit­u­ated near a for­est. Sud­denly, a spot­ted deer gave an alarm call some half a kilo­me­ter away. Nev­er­the­less, a sin­gle deer call is enough to arouse a wild-lifer's in­ter­est and I was no ex­cep­tion. Ten min­utes later, a samb­har made another alarm call and was joined by one more samb­har call. Then I heard that un­mis­tak­able sound which all wildlife lovers yearn for in a for­est; the deep growl of a tiger. “Looks like T24 is around.” I im­me­di­ately bolted to the first­floor ter­race of Jhoomar Baodi, to its very edge, from where it is pos­si­ble to look at the ground out­side the main en­trance, right up to the wide park­ing lot sit­u­ated some 70 me­ters away on a down­ward slope. Luck­ily, I was armed with my high-pow­ered torch. My pa­tience was fi­nally re­warded. The third growl reached my ears af­ter 10 min­utes or so and al­most in­stan­ta­neously my thumb — as if act­ing on its own vo­li­tion — pressed

Mr. Ra­heja with Tom Al­ter, An­chor of “Jun­gle ki Ka­haniyan” by Ra­heja Pro­duc­tions

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