Royalty oozes out from the name of Rajasthan which means the Land of the Kings. The state with its rich history of various kings and their respective dynasties have an indelible mark of the glorious past on everything of the present. Though I reached Ranthambore to meet the royals from some different family. I was here to see the Bengal Tigers of the Ranthambore National Park which was once known as the Royal Bengal Tigers.
They are no less than the royals as hundreds of visitors try their luck first to get the safari booking; then have a ticket to the favourable zone in the forest and finally and most importantly get a good sighting of the much sought after Tigers. The work leaves, timings, travel hassles and the cost are just the other aspects.
It was the call of the forest that brought me here. Every forest has its own uniqueness like every house has its own. And why not? It is the habitat of a wide range of life – their peaceful home. It is their world, it is their haven. I like the feel of the forest air, the smell, the sight, the ambience, everything soothes my soul. Every flora and fauna seem to be even more alive, more beautiful in its natural habitat.
Let me give an honest confession now, this time along with the call of the forest it was also a hidden urge to meet the king of the forest which I have never done before in any safari. While on other times I would rather enjoy every moment of being within the forest – inhaling the fresh air, silently watching the native floral outgrowth and the tiny to large organisms living within. This time it was a hidden urge that was silently restless within me.
Ranthambore National Park is situated in the district of Sawai Madhopur near the city with the same name. After the year-long travel-less confinement, being in the forest is like a breather. So we choose to stay away from the city and close to the forest in a small village like surrounding. I would rather write a separate post on Sawai Madhopur and focus on my jungle safari experience here.
In quest of meeting the royals this time, we tried to make it triply sure so booked three safaris back to back in three zones (1, 2 & 3). We wanted to get the maximum from a two-day safari so the morning-evening safari for the first day and again a morning safari for the next day.
There are 10 zones in the National Park that are open for tourism. The National Park comprises an area of 1334 sq. km with mostly dry deciduous forest and some open grassy meadows. There are some large water bodies within the park while it has the Banas River flowing through the north and the Chambal by the South.
In the year 1955, an area of 282 sq. km was marked as Sawai Madhopur Game Sanctuary. Much later in the year 1973, it came under the Project Tiger reserve. Gradually the surrounding areas of Sawai Man Singh Sanctuary and the Keladevi Sanctuary were merged into it to form the Ranthambore National Park.
It is always advisable to book the safari in advance to get the tickets to the desired zones. Online booking can be made through the forest department website of Rajasthan: http://fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in/. You have to create an SSO login and register yourself with ID details and further follow the steps to get the reservation and make the payment. The printed tickets are to be taken to the forest gate 45mins prior to the safari timings to get the boarding pass to enter the forest.
This process has been facilitated by the agents (mostly connected to every hotel there) with an extra payment of a certain amount per person. They take care of getting the boarding pass and also pick you up from the hotel and again drop you back after the safari. You just need to provide a copy of the ticket to the hotel staff and they will organise it for you.
Every zone is the territory of one or more tigers. We came to know of a few common names while the forest department has its own naming convention of ‘T’ followed by the number. Say ‘Arrowhead’, a famous tigress of zone-3 is actually T-84. In this way, every tiger here has a name or two.
Our first safari on the first day was in zone 1. This zone is the territory of the tigress Sultana (T-107), the new mother of two cubs and the male tiger T-57. This zone is more of a buffer zone, so we had mixed feeling and expectation. The early morning ride in late February, in an open gipsy, was unimaginatively chilling enough. Even in our warm clothes, our fingers were feeling numb.
We entered the forest gate, all the formalities were taken care of by the agent (the guide) and then we were near the entry gate (Singh Dwar) of zone 1. The Ranthambore fort was seen up, on the hilly terrain while we were driven into the jungle and in no time before even venturing much into the zone the prize of the day was in front of our gypsy crossing the road. There was only one vehicle ahead of us and in between two vehicles it was Sultana (the proud mother of the two cubs) casually crossing over the forest track.
She was unperturbed by our presence. She gently walked through the side of the vehicle towards the jungle leaving her scent marks to mark her territory. Then she went deep inside the forest making roaring sounds that reverberated within the forest, though it was not a threatening call, it was supposed to mark her presence or a call to her cubs. Few minutes of her presence and her roar was so incredible.
On our first safari, we were lucky enough to see an elusive tigress (just because she is a new mother and rarely leaves her cubs in the den alone) and also hear it roar. It was a strange feeling and is hard to describe, we were immensely happy, our guide and driver seemed even happier and boasted of their credibility (which seemed to be mere luck to us) to earn a good tip.
The two vehicles were the only luckiest among the others to spot the tiger while the handful of others went empty-handed. There were only a few gypsies in this zone that morning. Near the forest check post inside the zone, the vehicles came together to give the visitors a short break and the drivers to exchange their sighting details. Our guide and driver was so delighted by the mere luck that they did not take us any further to show the other parts of the zone and brought us back to our stay saying that it is a small zone.
Neither we complained as we too were pleased to see the unexpected, yet I could not get the proper feel of the jungle for which I love to enter the forest. The guides and the drivers seem to have only one thing in mind – the Tiger, they selectively ignore other interesting aspects of the forest. This was my initial feeling after my first safari here. Again we had a mixed feeling of skepticism, anticipation and excitement for the next safari in the evening in zone 3.
Zone 3 is the most popular and most sought after zone in Ranthambore National Park, which I came to know after visiting there. There are many water bodies in this zone like Raj Bag Lake, Malik Lake and Padam Lake, so the possibility of the sighting is high. There are a few regions of this zone that overlaps with zone 4 of the national park.
The zone is the territory of Arrowhead (T-84), with her juvenile daughters Riddhi and Siddhi, and T-86. Riddhi and Siddhi were in news for quite some time for their frequent territorial fights and their viral video on social media. As the tigresses are growing up they require their own territory and so they fight to claim their own. The Forest department is planning to relocate one of them to a new territory.
This time our guide seemed more interested in sharing information about the forest and was telling us about the variety of flora and fauna and their habitat. He took us to various water bodies to look out for tigers. Then finally there was a threatening roar at a distance with the glance of a tiger jumping off the ground and falling back to disappear. I missed the sight but it caught the eyes of our driver and guide.
They said it might be Riddhi and Siddhi threatening each other, then again long to and fro in the same region when finally one of the siblings appeared before us from behind the long grasses. Big and healthy, the magnificent bright juvenile in its full glory walked ahead from the woods towards the thick grass to lie down and have her own leisurely time.
There were only a couple of gypsies along with us to watch her majesty in her full glory when other gypsies and canters from all other sides rushed to the spot and it was a lot of motor commotion with the sound of the vehicle engines to reposition themselves to give the visitors a better view of the tiger. After some time the tigress decided to move away from the limelight and enter into the dense part not to be seen any more.
All the vehicles now moved to another water hole when suddenly the other sibling came in view. She was least bothered about the presence of a large number of canters and gypsies full of people watching her in awe. She gently moved towards the wood then again in her gentle gait returned back and quietly sat on the grass watching the Sambar and the Chital moving away from the watering hole sighting danger.
She watched them move away in safety and then slowly went back to the dense part of the forest. This was the time when I thought of taking my eyes away from the show and look at my immediate surrounding and it was all crowded with gypsies and canters full of people. I suddenly became aware of the presence of so many people around. All kept waiting for another glance of the tigers. It was only then I felt bad about being human, who intrude into the natural territory of the wild unwanted.
The tigers by now are well accustomed to the presence of the vehicles and their sounds. It should not be like this for the wild creatures. I developed a strange feeling and kept questioning myself to find the justification of such wildlife tourism. I was lost in such thoughts for the rest of the day and the joy of watching Riddhi and Siddhi was in someway dimmed by other logic and questions tormenting my mind.
With not much expectation and an unusual feeling of culpability, I went for our last safari in the park to zone 2 the next morning. This zone was more rugged than the other two and in fact little dense. This zone had a clear sight of the Ranthambore fort. In this safari, we did not find any tiger but the forest pleased us in its own way. Our guide took us through every nook and corner of the zone watching the pugmarks to follow the trail of the tiger but in vain. We did see crocodiles and a few avian species and a couple of black-tipped mongooses before we returned back from the forest.
I was happy to be in the forest for two consecutive days, I was happy to get the feel of the jungle, I was happy to meet the royals of the forest. They were definitely royals, no less than any celebrity as hundreds of human took so much trouble and spent so much money just to get a glance of them. Even worse than any celebrity they lack their own privacy which is the right of every organism. We as unwanted visitors intrude into their home and for the sake of our own pleasure disrupt their seclusion.
On the other hand, being in the forest gives us a better understanding of the wildlife and their habitat, it also raises awareness among the commons in many ways and thus helps in conservation. But the concept of crowding around the animal (although maintaining a certain distance) did not look good to me. The forest officials are the best person to know the right thing and definitely they take care of it in a correct way. Though I am still confused in my own way, finding the correctness of jungle safaris. Yet I might again go to some forest and be a part of the forest safari and myself may disrupt the solitude of the wildlife.