A pawprint here, An eviscerated deer there… surely the elusive tiger is just around the next corner. AMY MACPHERSON reports on the difficult task of spotting tigers in India.
In the shade of the immense ruins of Ranthambore Fort, our jeep rounds a corner and plunges into a small gully, handling the bumpy terrain with ease. Birds scatter and a family of langur monkeys glance curiously at us from the treetops, babies dangling from their hips. The shadows and the dawn chill are a relief after the full-on furnace of yesterday’s 38°C high.
As we make our way deeper into the forest, we keep our eyes peeled for a flash of striped hide. We’re in one of the premier locations in India for spotting Royal Bengal tigers, and there’s a good chance today’s safari will bring us face to face with this magnificent animal in its natural habitat.
Ranthambore National Park covers 392km2 of dry, deciduous forest in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s one of the country’s best-known Project Tiger conservation areas, a scheme started in the 1970s to protect India’s dwindling numbers of wild tigers. Solitary by nature, tigers rely on stalking and ambush when hunting their prey. These low-profile tendencies make them elusive creatures but, nonetheless, plenty of park visitors manage a coveted glimpse. The secret, our guide tells us, is to stay alert for the two crucial clues that tigers are nearby – the high-pitched alarm calls of the langurs, and the distinctive tiger pugmarks (pawprints) in the soft, sand-like soil of the roadside.
In the days before it was given protected national park status, Ranthambore was a favourite hunting-ground of Rajasthani royals. The park takes its name from the fort, a massive 10th century forest citadel that dominates the skyline. The area was fought over by rival groups throughout Rajasthan’s history and along with the forests, grassy valleys and lakes are regal-looking ruins such as deserted lake palaces, pavilions and temples. One such relic is the prince’s well, an ancient step well where the princes of the fort would come to bathe. We pull to a halt beside it to peer inside. The pool is surrounded by trailing vegetation, like something out of The Jungle Book, and beneath its carpet of weed the water looks fathomless and dark. I remember that tigers like to swim, and the thought of one squeezing through the gates and slipping into the cool waters under cover of darkness is a vivid image. They are the only royalty here now, stalking their prey in the former playground of kings.
Back on the trail a few minutes later, our guide suddenly points to the right. Lying in a clearing, its belly eviscerated, is a recently slaughtered sambar deer. Is this the clue we’ve been waiting for? The jeep stops and we listen carefully, but there’s no hint of activity in the quiet glade. Disappointed, we continue – it looks like we’ve just missed breakfast.
A little while later we round a bluff, and high up on its tree-covered slopes there is a tiny movement. Then, almost simultaneously, comes the panicked clamour of animal voices – the monkeys across the road are calling in alarm. Our eagle-eyed wildlife expert has spotted something, but it’s not a tiger. To his delight, it’s an extremely rare spotting of a family of leopards. We watch in fascination as the two youngsters and their mother amble slowly around on the hillside, one flopping down out of a tree, another sunning itself on a rock, almost invisible in their camouflage against the dry foliage and grass. Every movement is reminiscent of a domestic cat. We leave them to their mid-morning kip and continue along the road.
As we emerge into an area of clear, flat ground, the sunlight’s building heat hits us like a solid force. It’s then that we finally see tangible evidence of tigers – a series of enormous and unmistakable pawprints along the sandy verge. We follow the trail for a while, but eventually it runs cold and, sadly, our time is up. The journey out of the park reveals more surprises, including the surreal sight of two mongooses eating a dead peacock, peering at us with rodent-like faces as we pass before going back to their feeding frenzy.
Sipping cool drinks back at the resort, the shadowy gullies of the park seem a long way away. The late morning heat has pole-axed everyone and even the lizards on my bathroom wall seem to be napping. Perhaps the tigers are dozing too, or enjoying a cooling dip somewhere. One, at least, has the exertions of a sambar deer hunt to recover from.
• Tigers are the largest of the big cats.
• Unlike almost all other big cats, tigers love to swim.
• A tiger’s stripes are like fingerprints – no two tigers have the same pattern.
• Tigers are solitary creatures but they occasionally share a kill.
• Of the eight original subspecies of tigers, three have become extinct.
• Only 6000 tigers are believed to exist in the wild.
Other animals of Ranthambore
The elusive sloth bear is active mainly at night which can make it tricky to spot. Typically a bit scruffy and dusty-looking, the sloth bear likes ferreting around for grubs, beetles and other morsels. It is particularly fond of ants and termites.
The weasel-like mongoose is quick, agile and certainly punches above its weight – it’s renowned for its ability to take on (and kill) poisonous snakes, protected by its thick skin and long fur. Mostly it eats small animals and eggs.
This delicate-looking and shy gazelle is one of several large grazing animals in the park. Others include sambar deer and chital (spotted deer).
With their old-man fringed faces and eerily human-like expressions, langurs are the watchers of Ranthambore. The langur’s high-pitched screech acts as an alarm call when predators are nearby.
• Amy Macpherson travelled to India with Hands Up Holidays (www.handsupholidays.com; 0800-783 3554), a company who combine high-comfort travel and sightseeing with a taste of community development work. The Rajasthan tiger safari is a component of the 12-day Taste of India tour, which starts at £1400 (flights not included) and also includes four days’ volunteer work in Delhi, a Delhi city tour and travel to Agra, Jaipur and Fatehpur Sikri. Quote ‘TNTHUH06’ when you book online to receive this special price, valid until September 30.