The park is renowned as one of India's premier tiger reserves and shot to fame after a 1997 BBC documentary titled Land of the Tigers, showcasing Machali, the then local dominant tigress. Circa 2011, Machali has lost her territory to her daughter yet visitors continue to pile in searching for the elusive big cat. But as we found out, spotting tigers at the 392 square kilo metre Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan isn't difficult. Throughout May and June, the park guarantees a tiger sighting to every tourist. And unless you have some serious bad luck, it is difficult to return without an encounter with India's national animal.
Why it works
May and June means peak summer in Rajasthan. The park is open only for a few hours every morning and evening, as the animals are most active during this time due to cooler temperatures. The chances of catching a tiger on the hunt or a leopard out for a drink at the local pool are high.
While the visitors line up outside the park with their scarves, hats and sunscreens, the vegetation inside suffers as well under the intense heat and it isn't uncommon to see vast patches of the jungle bare.
"They're dry deciduous trees," the local guide informs, "When the monsoon arrives, they will be in full bloom". The herbivores suffer in the heat. They cluster in groups around patches that have some greens and regularly visit the three lake bodies within the reserve.
It is these factors, combined with some great tiger tracking by the guides and jeep drivers, that ensures spotting a big cat. Tigers are largely territorial. So unlike the herbivores that move from one area to another, they will rarely leave their marked zone.
The heat ensures that they hang around their few watering holes for long durations and the bare vegetation makes for some easy spotting. Also, the guides and jeep drivers are well acquainted with the terrain and the big cats' favourite hunting and resting spots and watering holes.
Also, the evening safaris have a higher success rate, as the forest rangers keep track of the big cat throughout the day. We were once made to wait at the same spot for an hour saying "Tiger toh yahi se niklega" (the tiger will come out from here). An hour later the prophecy came true and we caught sight of the majestic animal swimming in the lake in front of us.
Making it matter
The other thing that works is the enthusiasm of the guides and drivers to ensure that you get a sighting. The guides and drivers are mostly locals whose livelihoods depend on you getting your money's worth and recommending the place. So they go the extra mile to ensure that you see atleast one tiger during your stay.
This also has its downside. Corruption is on the rise, as now people accept bribes in exchange for a tiger glimpse. Some guides also break their allotted zones to venture into areas that give them a higher chance with the spotting. Also, visitors comes to see the tiger and there is little regard for the other animals and birds. Yet, if you want to see a tiger, this is a trip worth taking.
Behind the scenes
Ranthambore is divided into five zones. Zone Two and Three are good for tiger spotting, zone One for leopards while birds are more common in zone Four. Zone Five is currently shut after forest rangers found tiger cubs in the area. There are approximately 38 full-grown tigers and cubs within the reserve. The best time to spot tigers and leopards is at first light in the morning or during sunset. This is the time that carnivores are most active. The tigress Machali, from the much-acclaimed BBC documentary, Land of the Tigers, lives in zone Four. She is 15 years old and has just one canine tooth. But she continues to remain a crowd favourite with the tourists and guides. The tigers within the reserve are given numbers for identification. They can also be differentiated on the basis of their stripes and whiskers. T19, Machali's daughter, is now the dominant tigress. Apart from the tigers, Ranthambore is also home to a variety of birds, herbivores like the Sambar deer, sloth bears and leopards. Also, a visit to the Ranthambore Fort is a must.