On the royal ben­gal Sandip Hor trail

Stalks the king of the forests at ran­tham­bore national park, ra­jasthan

WKND - - Travel India -

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.

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