On the royal bengal Sandip Hor trail
Stalks the king of the forests at ranthambore national park, rajasthan
Watching wildlife in their own domain has always been my dream, and when I travelled to Africa recently, I saw almost every animal imaginable… well, except the Bengal tiger. For that, I had to trek to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, a place where sighting tigers was a near certainty, I was told. So there I was, peering into the thick brushland to catch a glimpse of the telltale orange and black stripes of the largest cats on the planet, hoping to strike off another thing on my bucket list.
“You will definitely see a tiger here,” says owner Usha Singh Rathore, as I check in at Khem Villas, a luxury jungle camp dotting the edge of the sanctuary. Her verbal assurance instantly boosts my excitement, so I quickly get ready for my maiden voyage.
The king of these jungles, the royal Bengal tiger is currently an endangered species. Over the last hundred years, hunting and deforestation have reduced their global population from hundreds of thousands to perhaps fewer than 2,500. With alarm bells ringing, forest departments in India have set up special programmes for their survival. In this context, the initiatives of the late Fateh Singh Rathore, former director of Ranthambore and Usha’s father- in- law, are well recognised among tiger conservationists round the world. His sincere work for over five decades has made Ranthambore the country’s best tiger reserve, one of the few places where the predator’s population is currently on the rise.
Safaris at Ranthambore are allowed only in early mornings and late afternoons, and entry into the park is only by designated Gypsies and canters provided by the state forest department ( the Gypsy is an old fashioned sixseater jeep, while a canter is an open truck that can fit around 20 people). The park area for the visitors is divided into ten zones. To protect the natural environment, the number of vehicles entering a particular zone each day is limited, the authorities deciding the zone for each vehicle by a method known only to them.
After a short briefing on the don’ts, we set out from the lodge in a Gypsy with our driver and naturalist Gopal, who wastes no time in enthralling us with data on the animal population at Ranthambore. “There are around sixty tigers, fifty leopards, nine hundred deer of different varieties and a good proportion of sloth bears, bison, monkeys, crocodiles and colourful birds in these 400- odd square kilometres of protected sanctuary,” he informs us.
Within a quarter of an hour, we move into dirt tracks, cutting through the deep forest of babul, semul, mohua, tamarind, neem, acacia, bamboo and banyan trees. If you’re a nature aficionado, there’s plenty to see and take in — if you can divert your attention from tiger- seeking for a few minutes. With the rugged Aravalli cliffs as a backdrop, a network of lakes and ponds, topped with lotus and lilies, ornament the undulating grassy meadows, alternating with dry and deciduous vegetation. Once the hunting ground for Rajput kings, a tinge of royalty still emanates from the ruins of the abruptly scattered tombs, towers and pavilions. A massive 1,000- year- old fort overlooking the landscape blends amicably with the austere surroundings.
The silent beauty of the wilderness absorbs us, until Gopal brakes to give way to a peacock crossing the track with a slow, commanding gait. “They are our national bird — we have to respect them,” he comments.