We watch the spotted-deer fawns intently. Under the blazing sun, these two have found respite on a drying stream bed that has survived due to the shade of an overhanging rock. From our safari jeep, we watch them taking sips of cool water from a puddle, and wonder where their mothers and the rest of the herd are. Perhaps they are just over the next hillock. Because alone, these fawns are vulnerable.
Less than a kilometre away, Afreen has just stepped out of a water hole after a luxuriant dip. She is young and confident, eager to explore, learn, and prove herself so she might follow in the footsteps of her mother, the world-renowned hunter, Noor. These fawns, would make for the perfect quarry.
A few minutes later, excited whispers inform me that she’s here. Cautiously Afreen places each paw before the other. Her body is bent low to the ground so her stripes break her outline amidst the yellowed grass. It could be a cruel end to the lives of the fawns, but it is the coming-of-age kill for a young hunter looking to strike out on her own.
Around me, people have their cameras pointed towards the scene, others are watching the crouching tigress through their binoculars, and many are swivelling their heads from left to right, tiger to the fawn, wondering what will happen next.
At the opportune moment, Afreen breaks cover, charging towards the fawns. One reacts quicker than the other, and makes a run for it. The second takes flight, perhaps a nanosecond later. The tiger locks on to the second, charging full steam on the drying river bed. The fawn makes a sharp turn on an incline, to run behind a tree and make for the forest beyond. At this precise moment, the tigress too changes direction to match the fawn, only her paw snags on an exposed root of the tree, tripping her for the barest hint of a second. But this, alters the complexion of the hunt. The fawn gains distance and the powerfully built tigress soon realises the gap is too much to close. She abandons the chase, and against all odds, the fawn lives to see another day.
Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
Spread over about 1,500 sq. km, the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve consists of the Ranthambore National Park, Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary, and the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary. Together, with the newly-formed Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve, the area represents one of the largest contiguous protected wilderness habitats in Rajasthan.
The gateway for visiting the park is the bustling town of Sawai Madhopur, which is also a major railway junction. The sanctuary can be explored through jeep and canter safaris that have access to the tourism areas of the reserve. The public-access areas are divided into ten zones: Zones 1-5 fall within the core area of the park, and zones 6-10 fall within the buffer zone. Every zone offers a different landscape, and there is no ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ zone.
Book safaris in advance as they are in high demand. This can be done online, though it is advisable to consult a hotel, travel agent, or safari operator for the bookings, as the online permits are often unavailable. Safaris cost just under Rs 6,000 for a full jeep, if booked on your own in advance. Canter safaris are more easily available, and can be booked independently, even close to travel days, so long as isn’t a long weekend or holiday.
There are also the options of half-day or full-day safaris, which are more expensive but offer the advantage of being ‘zone-free’ so you can travel across zones.
Bounded by the Aravalli and Vindhya mountain ranges, Ranthambore has a semi-arid habitat with dry deciduous forest, thorn and scrub, and open grasslands. Thanks to the Banas River in the north, the Chambal River to the south, and large lakes like Padam Talao and Malik Talao, the reserve is something of an oasis, rich in diversity.
Birds: Ranthambore is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with records of over 350 species. Among the more iconic ones are the rufous treepies, jungle babblers, dusky eagle owl, and endangered species of vultures including the Indian, Egyptian and the migratory Eurasian griffons. The landscape changes in winter, as does the diversity in the reserve. Migratory flocks of ducks, raptors, flycatchers, and warblers make an entry, and the reserve abounds with chatter and song.
Reptiles: Not particularly known for herping, Ranthambore nevertheless supports over 40 species of reptiles and amphibians. The most widely seen is the mugger basking by the sides of the large lakes. Snakes are rarer, though glimpses of the spectacled cobra, checkered keelbacks, and the Indian rock python have been recorded.
Mammals: There is plenty to see in Ranthambore, even if the striped feline eludes. The imposing sambar and dainty spotted deer are commonly seen on safari, as are the hulking nilgai/blue bulls. Other regulars include Hanuman langurs (always a delight to see and photograph), wild boars, and herds of elegant Indian gazelle. Those riding with luck might spot a sloth bear, skulking about in the early mornings and late evenings.
Ranthambore is a treat for lovers of big cats. In addition to the tiger, the leopard too roams these parts, with numerous sightings recorded in the hilly areas of the park, usually during the early hours of the morning and late in the evening. An exceptionally rare sight here is the caracal, an endangered species of wild cat, which has been seen only three times between 2016-2019.
The unquestionable star of this park is the Bengal tiger, and Ranthambore is truly one of the best places on the planet to observe the animal. There are over 70 in the sanctuary and they are revered here, to an extent that is unmatched.
In Ranthambore, tigers are not just animals but personalities. There is the fearless Genghis who charged into the lakes during the early 90s, the iconic Noor who became the darling of photographers worldwide, and the grand old dame Machli, arguably the oldest living wild tiger on record. She died in 2016, but the legend of her most famous encounters — such as taking on, and successfully killing a full-grown mugger crocodile — remains on every forest guide’s lips.
The present generation of tigers: Arrowhead, Sultana, Noorie, Kumbha, and Fateh among others, continue to patrol this landscape of wilderness and heritage monuments, making for some truly remarkable photos.
While you’re there, the Ranthambore Fort is a must-visit. The UNESCO World Heritage site was built in the 10th century, and offers sweeping views of the surrounding wilderness. Close by, a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha is visited by devotees of the elephant god.
Zone 3 of the park houses the famed red structure of Jogi Mahal. Located by the banks of Padam Talao, it was built as a hunting lodge and has been visited by royalty and later, various heads of state. Today, it is closed to the public as the area also sees large carnivore movement, but you can still enjoy a view of the structure along the huge green canopy in its vicinity.
Another offbeat option is a boat safari in the nearby National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary at Palighat, 25 km from Sawai Madhopur. The boat ride (45 min-1 hr) offers fantastic views of birdlife including the black-bellied tern and Indian skimmer, as well as sightings of the endangered gharial and mugger crocodiles. Boat hire charges are between Rs 2,500-3,000 per boat, depending on the season. Note that during 2020, the condition of roads from Sawai Madhopur to Chambal is not good, due to a highway under construction. The distance is 25 km, but the travel time is around 1.5 hour.
By Road: Kota (130 km/3.5 hr) is the closest major city. Agra (255 km/6 hr away) is also a popular connecting point for international visitors.
By Train: Sawai Madhopur (10 km/15 min) is a major railhead connecting trains coming in from Delhi and Mumbai.
By Air: The closest airport is in Jaipur (approx. 180 km/3 hr).
Most accommodations are located near Sawai Madhopur town and along the main Ranthambore road, with a few exclusive properties located near the village of Khilchipur, close to the park’s boundaries.
Budget There are many homestays, guest houses, and small hotels offering accommodation for Rs 1,000-2,500 (doubles). Popular options include Ranthambore Tiger Home, Ranthambore Tiger Haveli, Hotel Green Valley, and Hotel Ganesh Ranthambore.
Mid-range The best of the mid-range options is RTDC’s Castle Jhoomar Baori, a heritage property with a great vantage point of the surrounding forest area. This place is a nature lover’s delight — visitors have reported seeing tigers and leopards on the track leading up to the hotel — though the rooms could do with a refurbishment. Ranthambore Tiger Moon Resort is close to the main safari gate, popular with both domestic and international visitors, and is among the first properties to be established here. More modern amenities and rooms are offered by WelcomHeritage’s Mount Valley Ranthambore, conveniently located on the Ranthambore main road. Priced a bit higher, Nahargarh Ranthambore offers a royal Rajasthani experience in its palatial grounds.
Luxury Ranthambore has among the finest safari lodges in the country in the luxury range (from Rs 16,000-60,000+ per night for doubles). Sawai Madhopur Lodge, part of the Taj group, is an elegant option, located near Sawai Madhopur town, while Aman-i-Khas and Sujan Luxury’s Sher Bagh are both luxury camps. Sher Bagh is run by a family of conservationists, and offers fascinating day excursions off the beaten path. For a more understated experience, check in to Khem Villas, an eco-sensitive safari lodge managed by the family of the late Fateh Singh Rathore. If its thorough pampering you seek, look no further than the award-winning Oberoi Vanyavilas. Lounge by the pool, tuck in to authentic Rajasthani cuisine, and enjoy a relaxing spa treatment, or take off on a private safari experience.
October to June is peak season for Ranthambore. The park’s core zones close for safaris from 1 July 1- 30 September, though safaris may still be possible in Ranthambore’s buffer zones, if weather conditions permit.
October to early March: The park reopens on 1st October, and guides, drivers, and visitors are enthusiastic to return to the core zones after the long break. Water abounds, the jungle has a luxuriant green look, and there is plenty of food in the reserve. Around winter, the park’s migratory avians arrive, and the mercury drops significantly, as low as 2 degrees celsius. Day temperatures remain pleasant until March.
April to May: The blaze begins in April, and the weather and action heat up with the arrival of summer. The Flame of the Forest blooms, as temperatures hit 45-50 degrees celsius during mid-day. Peak summer is also the best time to view tigers: Intolerant of heat, the felines are often seen lounging by the park’s remaining water sources. The dryer, more open vegetation also improves visibility.
June to early September: The core zone remains closed, though safaris may still be possible in Zones 6-10. The park is at its most beautiful at this time of year, fresh with the sights and scents of the monsoon. Even driving around the park’s periphery or soaking in the forest at a hotel near the wilderness can be enjoyable.
Tips for visitors:
1. Avoid visiting during long weekends and holidays, unless you are booking 4 months in advance. Try and stay a minimum of 2 nights (ideally 3 or more), and do at least 4 safaris to really explore the park’s treasures.
2. On safari, carry water, a hat, and a dust mask, as the jeeps can kick up a fair bit of dust. Getting binoculars is also recommended, as there is much the naked eye can miss.
3. During winters, bundle up with jackets, woollen caps, gloves, and mufflers. It can get really cold in canter buses and open jeeps, especially during the morning safaris.
5. If carrying a camera, ensure it has a zoom of at least 30x or a minimum of 300mm on a DSLR body. Most wildlife prefer to keep a distance and will disappear into the bushes should you venture too near.
6. Most important of all, visit with the right expectations. Sighting any wildlife is a matter of luck, and you can be rest assured that guides do their best to showcase the park’s biodiversity. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
is a naturalist, photojournalist and founder of the safari tour outfit, Wilderlust Expeditions. www.shashankbirla.com
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