To see a tiger in the wild is a very special sight. To see three is virtually unprecedented, especially for somebody who was convinced he would never see one at Ranthambore.
I have a love-hate relationship with the tiger. I love tigers: their majesty, their power, and their sheer beauty. But I don’t think they like me very much. And for a long time, I believed they actually hated me.
Around 15 years ago, when there were lots of tigers in Ranthambore and not so many hotels or tourists, I went to the Park for a short vacation. It was easy to see tigers, or so everyone assured me. My first trip to the National Park was with an experienced tracker. I’ll show you a tiger, he promised. Sadly, he was unable to keep his word.My second trip was with Mahipal Singh, then general manager of the Taj Lodge near Ranthambore and an experienced tiger photographer. Not to worry, he said. I’ll take you the right way. And he probably did. But I still saw no tigers.
My third trip was with one of India’s greatest tiger experts, Valmik Thapar, who very kindly offered to take me into the Park. But no, still no tiger sightings.
Finally, I fell back on a bit of influence-peddling. I knew the environment minister in that era. He called forest officials and arranged for them to take me. This time, I was sure to see tigers, I was told. Forest officials were experts at producing tigers for VIPs and friends of the minister. Well, perhaps they are. But I clearly did not rate because no tigers were visible.
I returned to Delhi convinced that the tiger had it in for me. Everybody who heard my Ranthambore story looked astonished. But it is so easy to see tigers in Ranthambore, they exclaimed.
When the Oberois opened Vanyavilas, their tented property near Ranthambore, they were kind enough to invite me. But for years and years, I resisted going. The official story was that I regarded the journey as too much of a drag (a flight to Jaipur and then a three-and-a-half hour drive on a bad road) but the real reason was that I was not prepared to be humiliated again. I knew that the tigers had it in for me. And so, it was wiser to keep my distance.
Then, last weekend, I finally gave in. The Vilas properties are among the world’s finest resorts and Vanyavilas itself was voted the world’s best hotel in the last Travel and Leisure magazine list. I needed to go there out of professional interest, if nothing else.
When I got to Vanyavilas, Tapan Piplani, the resort’s personable general manager, assured me that he had planned a tiger safari for the next day. Tapan is a nice guy and a credit to the Indian hotel industry – it is great to have an Indian general manager at the world’s finest resort. So, I was not about to tell him that he was wasting his time. Instead, I went along with his plans.
But even as he was planning our trip into Ranthambore, I enjoyed the resort. It has 25 tents spread over a lushly-forested compound and service is excellent. So, I discovered, is the food. The chef makes light and interesting Western food with brilliant patisserie and wonderful bread. The tents themselves are surprisingly luxurious.
So, I did not mind so much that I would not see a tiger. The Vanyavilas experience was worth it without the added attraction of Ranthambore. And when I settled into the spa for a relaxing massage, I knew that I was going to enjoy the weekend, tiger or no tiger.
When we drove into the Park the next afternoon, Tapan came along. For a hotelier of varied experience, he is surprisingly knowledgeable about wildlife and impressed me with his knowledge of the panic calls of the monkey and the distress calls of the peacocks. Sure enough, we saw many alarmed monkeys and distressed peacocks. We saw large sambar deer and packs of fleet-footed spotted deer. But, as you may have guessed, we saw no tigers. Seeing how crushed Tapan looked, I let him into the secret. The tigers at Ranthambore may well be wild, I said, but they are certainly not wild about me. Better men than Tapan (if only in the wildlife sense) had taken me to the Park and failed to find any tigers. He should not take it personally.
But Tapan did take it personally. Could we go back to the Park the next day, he asked. He was confident that we would find a tiger if we tried again. I knew this was a doomed enterprise but seeing as I had not much else to do, I agreed.
The next day, we went into the Park again. Tapan had heard that a tiger had been sighted in the long grass. We headed for the spot and were told that a tigress was sleeping in the grass. Tapan looked through his binoculars and said he could make out the tigress’s bulk. He thought he saw a black stripe through the grass. I looked and looked. I could make out nothing. But the obvious course was to stick to the spot and wait. At some stage, the tigress would wake up.
We waited for an hour and a half. When nothing happened, we drove off to another spot where a tiger sighting had been reported. We missed that tiger and returned to the tall grass. Unfortunately by that time, the tigress had woken up, had displayed herself to a couple of jeep-loads of patient tourists and had disappeared into the jungle. So, no luck there either.
As we headed back to the hotel, Tapan seemed entirely downcast. I tried to cheer him up and reminded him that I had expected no better.
But he seemed determined. He knew I was leaving the following day at noon, he said. But would I agree to make another trip to the Park at 6.15 am? Perhaps we would see a tiger then. I am not a morning person and I knew that the chances of my seeing a tiger were roughly on par with Tapan’s chances of getting a UFO to land on the Vanyavilas lawn. But given what a good host he had been, I agreed.
We set out early the next morning, accompanied by Amrita Bhalla, the Oberoi’s new head of HR. This time, we were the first jeep into the park and nobody had any sightings to report. We drove into an area where our tracker found fresh pug marks. There had been a tiger walking on that road quite recently, he said. But the pug marks stopped suddenly, suggesting that the tiger had now disappeared into the jungle.
Disappointed, our party drove off into another part of the park. We were driving fairly aimlessly when our tracker suddenly shot up in the front seat. He had spotted a tigress sleeping under a tree. Somewhat sceptically, I turned to look. There was indeed a tigress beneath the tree and as she heard us approach, she got to her feet and ambled away. I turned to Tapan. “Congratulations,” I said. “You have broken the jinx.” He looked more relieved than delighted.
Our driver then turned the jeep around and drove to where he thought the tigress was heading. We lay in wait though the presence of several sambar convinced us that the tigress could not be near – otherwise, the deer would have fled. As it turned out, we were wrong. But not as wrong as the deer were.
Within minutes, the tigress approached and wandered around the terrain in front of us. Our tracker told us that the deer were not worried because they knew that the tigress was not hungry. Clearly, they were very stupid deer. As we watched, the tigress suddenly leapt in the air and jumped on an unsuspecting baby deer. I watched in horrified fascination as it rose again, the neck of the tiny sambar between its teeth. Then, it walked determinately to our jeep, staring (or so I thought) directly at us. As it crossed in front of the jeep, I could see that the deer was still alive because its body seemed to be twitching. We watched the tigress disappear into the distance, looking presumably for a place to devour her kill.
After that, the atmosphere in our jeep changed. We stopped for hot coffee and pain au chocolat (packed by the hotel) before driving back.
It was Amrita who spotted it first. I heard her say, “Oh my God” and turned to see what she was looking at. A large tigress had materialised seemingly out of nowhere. It walked along the road in front of us and the guide told us that it was pregnant, which accounted for its distended torso. The tigress continued walking along the road as we followed a short distance behind until finally, she veered off into the undergrowth.
I turned to Tapan. This was a bonus, I said. First, he showed us a kill. And now, half an hour later, a second tigress. Who could ask for more?
We began to drive back and had only gone a short distance when Tapan whispered urgently, “Look back.” I did and saw a tiger crossing the road and going into the jungle on the other side. Tapan took out his binoculars and followed it till it vanished into the foliage.
Was it the second tigress again? It could have been. But Tapan, who saw more of it than the rest of us, thought its coat was darker and concluded that it was an entirely different tiger.
So, on my third visit to the Park, I had actually seen three tigers and had witnessed one of them making a kill.
I was gobsmacked. And I am still slightly stunned as I write this a few hours later. To see a tiger in the wild is a very special sight. To see three is virtually unprecedented, especially for somebody who was convinced he would never see one at Ranthambore.
So, perhaps, it’s not a love-hate relationship after all. Perhaps my love is finally being reciprocated.