The Ranthambore National Park retains its original charm despite reports about the decline of the tiger population in India.
THE Ranthambore National Park is perhaps the best place in the world to see tigers in the wild. Over 95 per cent of all published tiger photographs in the world are taken here.
The Ranthambore forest was the private hunting resort of the Maharajas of Jaipur. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1955 and named the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary. The government, however, permitted the Maharaja of Jaipur and his guests to hunt in the sanctuary. Big game hunting was totally stopped in 1970.
The sanctuary, encompassing an area of 392 sq km, was included in Project Tiger, one of the most ambitious and successful wildlife projects in the world, when it was launched in 1973. Ranthambore, the smallest of the 28 tiger reserves in India, was elevated to the status of National Park in 1980.
The difference between a national park and a sanctuary is that no human activity is allowed inside a national park, while limited activities are permitted within the latter. Moreover, national parks receive more financial support from the Central government.
Tigers are found only in Asia. A 100 years ago about 50,000 tigers are said to have roamed the continent. By 1970, their numbers had dwindled to 2,000-odd. After the launch of Project Tiger the number of wild cats increased steadily to 5,000. In 2004, there were 30-35 tigers in Ranthambore as against 25-29 in 2001.
One can move inside the Ranthambore sanctuary only in authorised open mini-buses or in open jeeps. These vehicles are permitted to take only one of the seven pre-selected routes. The idea is to ensure that not more than two vehicles ply on the same route at the same time.
Tiger sightings are rare and so when it happens it becomes an occasion to cherish.
During my three-day stay in Ranthambore, I went into the national park on three evenings. I travelled in an open mini-bus with other tourists. We set off on the "tiger trail", as it were, around 3 p.m. on each day and left the park by sunset. (Ranthambore has far more rigid rules than other Project Tiger reserves: All vehicles must leave the park by 6-30 p.m.) The park wore a dry and parched look owing to the failure of monsoon for three consecutive years in the region.
The sun was slowly dipping on the horizon. But it was still very hot. Sundown brings animals to the water holes and we were waiting with bated breath to sight the tiger, to have a private audience with the lord of the jungle.
On the first day, we sighted three tigers - a mother and her two cubs. They lay fast asleep about 15 metres from one another. They were at a distance from the road and partly hidden among the trees and shrubs. On the second day, our guide pointed to our right. A large tigress appeared out of the shadows and started moving along the road. The vehicles followed her. She took no notice. She entered a shallow pool of water. We were ecstatic. Cameras clicked away furiously. We tumbled over one another to have a better view, to get better shots. The tigress lolling in the pool preferred to ignore us.
Our vehicle reversed and took up position a little distance away. Soon a young tiger came and sat on the road in front of the vehicle. A younger one came and sat down on the ground a little to our left.
Suddenly the tigress emerged from her bath and strolled towards her cubs. She crossed the road and started calling. The cubs joined her and the three melted away into the forest.
The third day, our guide took us to a place where a pair of tigers had killed a sambar (Indian deer) a couple of days ago. The tigers had feasted on the prey. We waited near a water hole, hoping for more sightings. I looked down and recognised a pugmark on the ground (the first I saw and recognised) near the vehicle. A tiger appeared to have crossed the road a short while ago, and should be back.
Soon a young tiger crossed the road from the rear of our vehicle and lay down on the ground a short distance away. Our driver reversed the vehicle and parked it in front of the tiger. The tiger, not distracted by us, merrily rolled on the ground while we took pictures.
Tigers need plenty of food. There are 10,000 cheetal (spotted deer), 8,000 sambar, 3,000 nilgai (Indian gazelle) and plenty of wild boar in Ranthambore - sufficient food to sustain a sizable population of tigers. There are other wildlife as well: leopards, sloth bear and so on. I spotted jackals, mongoose, crocodiles, turtles and langurs. Large tracts of the national park are covered with dhak (flame of the forest) trees. There are three large lakes within the park. But the lakes were almost dry and there were few migratory birds.
In 1991, there were 45 tigers in Ranthambore. But poaching took its toll and the numbers declined. The surviving tigers became extremely wary and it became difficult to sight one. Thanks to the efforts of people like Fateh Singh Rathod, the first Field Director of the Ranthambore National Park, who has devoted his life to the conservation of tigers, and the local villagers, poaching virtually came to a halt and the population of tigers began to increase steadily.
The villagers willingly relocated to areas outside the National Park. They have accepted the tiger as an integral part of their lives. Several non-governmental organisations are working in the area to save the tiger. As a result, the tigers of Ranthambore have become accustomed to human presence.
Ranthambore along with Sariska (also in Rajasthan) was considered a success story of Project Tiger. Ranthambore did not fail the enthusiastic group of eco-tourists.
The government has taken various measures to restore the parks to their original glory.
Binoy Gupta is Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, Chennai.