Monday, August 13, 2012

Ranthambhore II - Magical Sequel!

T17 or Sundari, Queen of the Lakes
Rarely, if ever, does a sequel perform better than its first part. And our first Ranthambhore trip had already set the bar really high. Add to that a superb Bandhavgarh visit and the Ranthambhore sequel had a virtually impossible job to go to the top of the table. So we went in hoping, but not expecting to end our Wildlife Wander on a real high. But hey, this was Ranthambhore and when the gods are with you, boy do they lay out a treat!! 7 safaris, tiger sightings on 6, 11 different tigers sighted. Plus Shikra, White eyed buzzards, Golden Orioles, Paradise Flycatchers, Thicknees, Crocodiles. All added up to make it my best trip to Ranthambhore ever!

It all started with a rather frustrating first safari. We looked all over Zone 3 for T17 or T19 and her cubs but no juice. On our way back we passed by Rajbagh, the summer palace and there was his majesty T28 perched on a little bridge across the water. He started to walk towards us so we all headed to where we expected him to emerge. But the rascal stopped midway and lay down somewhere in an island with thick bush. And never emerged.

T28, the dominant male
The next morning, we entered through a different gate to head to Zone 5. Barely a couple of minutes in, I saw a huge form move languidly through the bushes. Tiger! And, wonder of wonders, it was T28! Probably making up for last evening. He walked down to the road, marked his territory a few times and climbed a hill to head back to Rajbagh. I still believe he came all the way only because he wanted to make up for the previous evening!

Spirits boosted, we headed further and as we climbed a beautiful hilly path, Vijay Kumawat (superb wildlife painter, more on him later) said in the middle of another conversation – Tiger on road. I thought he was joking but as we looked ahead, there indeed was a tiger on the road. It was T17, queen of the lakes and a new mother. She very rarely ventured this side of the park, especially now that she had two-week old cubs!  As we walked with her, it was clear that she’d come to mark her territory. She sprayed at every turn in the road and strutted about like the queen she was. She stopped for a drink and then wandered about, spraying and sniffing every other minute. As she finally headed back into the bushes, we could barely believe our luck. Two superb sightings, that too of tigers who were very rarely seen in this part of the park. When you’re meant to see something…

The third morning was thrilling even though it was the only safari without a sighting. But in less than 10 kilometres, we saw evidence (very, very fresh) of 5 tigers. And as far as the signs go, we saw them all – fresh pugmarks of T25 (a large male) really fresh tracks of T17 again, straight out of a waterhole. We saw droplets still wet on the mud track. But no sign of either tiger. Then we carried on further into Zone 5 and were suddenly assaulted with a pungent odour. The unmistakable scent of fresh tiger scat, which our driver had run over. We retraced our tracks and saw pugmarks of a tigress with two cubs and even signs of them sitting in the middle of the road. And this tigress had never been seen in that area before. Much though we tried, we saw no tigers but it was an incredible safari all the same because we were so close to so many tigers. Made us reflect on all our incredible sightings and how lucky we were to be at the right place at exactly the right time.

Brahminy Mynah
That evening, Hemraj joined us on the safari and we had Zone 4, home to Machali (or T16) Ranthambhore’s Queen Mother and probably the most photographed tiger on the planet. She wasn’t in a mood to appear (she came out an hour after we crossed her area) but Hemraj said that he was sure we would see T6 (or Romeo – a handsome male tiger) lazing in a cave. And as if on cue, there he was, in a little cave next to the road. As we drove by, he raised his magnificent head to look at us and then plopped back to rest. He was an exceptionally good-looking tiger! We quickly got out as the rest of the circus arrived went looking elsewhere.

T6 or Romeo - What a handsome bloke!
And that happened to be right behind the hill where T6 was lying. There was a leopard kill there and we decided we would wait for the spotted one. While we waited near a waterhole (at a distance from the kill to allow the leopard undisturbed access) we saw some beautiful birds frolicking in the water – mynas, paradise flycatchers, drongos, fan tailed flycatchers and bulbuls all enjoying themselves, and keeping an eye on the shikra who looked to gatecrash.

Wild boar feasting on a leopard's kill
And then, we saw something move towards the kill. Accelerated heartbeats, adrenaline rushing, we slowly made our way there. And saw something dark starting to feast on the carcass. Finally a Leopard, we thought!! But our hopes of seeing a rare leopard were bested by something even more rare – a wild boar eating a kill!! While I’d heard of wild boar scavenging kills, I was seeing one for the first time. Here he was, confidently tearing into someone else’s hard earned kill. What a pig!
A pair of thicknees with their little 'chicknee'
The last day of our Wildlife Wander – three incredible months coming to an end. What did it have to offer us? How would this amazing journey end? Straight up as we entered Zone 3, we saw tracks – vehicle tracks, all headed towards Mandook (or high point) And that could only mean one thing – Tiger! Either T19 with her cubs or her sister T17. So we obediently followed, till we hit a traffic jam near a waterhole. And sure enough, in the water were T19 and two of her cubs. As we waited for our turn in the queue, the crowd was turning increasingly restless. But we waited, and the reward came (as it always does for patience) Just as we got our turn, the tigress and one cub came together and affectionately nuzzled. What an awesome sight!!

T19 or 'Krishna'
Then we knew they were going to move. So Hemraj asked the driver to drive way out in front. So we left the rest of the crowd and drive a few hundred metres away where we hoped they would cross. And we waited. Again, patience was rewarded as they walked towards us, and crossed in front, giving us a friendly (??) looked as they walked past. They disappeared into the valley and as the VIP jeeps followed (in vain I may add) we turned back and spent a pleasant half an hour on the shores of Rajbagh lake. Watching the water-birds and enjoying the breeze. And there, we saw a mother sambhar cleaning her calf’s ears with her tongue! The things you see in the jungle.

That evening we got Zone 5 again. A tad disappointed, since I had already been on this route twice and wanted to go to a different part of the park. And this time, we saw another male tiger, T25 or Zaalim. He was resting peacefully in a waterhole as we drove by and gave us a quiet 15 minute audience. For those who don’t know, he’s the father who’s bringing up his two female cubs after their mother died. A phenomenon that was hitherto never ever recorded. We knew that the cubs were also in the vicinity, but didn’t manage to see them. But we did manage to see and salute this amazingly responsible father. May his tribe increase.

Zaalim (T25) looking longingly at a passing lapwing
And so we left Ranthambhore on a serious high. So many different tigers, wonderful, close sightings – couldn’t have asked for more. And with the news that three tigresses had given birth to cubs (T17, T39 and T41) the forthcoming season holds a lot of promise at this most spectacular of tiger reserves.

Supreme Court willing, of course!!

Ranthambhore’s ‘people to meet’

Hemraj Meena
Naturalist, home-stay owner and living-breathing Ranthambhore encyclopedia. He grew up in a village on the periphery of the park and is living proof on how the tiger can benefit enterprising local villagers. And there are few better in this country than Hemraj at tracking tigers – I have been the beneficiary of his incredible skills many many times and spent so many happy safaris in Ranthambhore with him. Over the years, he has also developed into a fine photographer. Also, from being a fantastic guide, his own hard work and zeal has helped him progress tremendously. Do stay at his Tiger Home (or drop in at least) for some incredible stories of Ranthambhore’s amazing tigers. Check out Tiger Home at

Murli Dher Parasher
Another product of the local villages, Parasherji is an incredibly gifted wildlife painter – a pioneer in his craft. It’s hard to tell a painting from a photograph sometimes. But more importantly, he has used his gift to inspire and aid a whole generation of wildlife painters at Ranthambhore. His Ranthambhore School of art teaches talented young village kids to paint and has spawned a new income stream for many local youth. Check out their remarkable charcoal technique, which uses soot and rolled up newspapers so even kids with little resources can learn to paint.

Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh
One of Ranthambhore’s free spirits, avid conservationist, superb photographer and hotelier, Dicky is another Ranthambhore lifer.  His Ranthambhore Bagh is another of those properties that wildlifers prefer over ‘resorts’ and over a drink or six, he will regale you with his stories of Ranthambhore. Check out Ranthambhore Bagh at or Dicky's own blog at

Vijay Kumawat
One of Ranthambhore’s up and coming young painters, Vijay is remarkably gifted. His paintings and charcoals are simply superb. Added to this is his gift for photography, his knowledge of the park and his overall interest in wildlife. Check out his work (both paintings and photography) on Facebook and you’ll know what I mean.


Juvenile Shikra


Paradise Flycatcher

Peacock from an interesting angle 
White-eyed buzzard

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve – Tiger Royalty

The next king of Ranthambhore?
Ranthambhore is, in my opinion, the best place on this planet to watch wild tigers. Some of my most memorable sightings have been set in these incredible surroundings. Where else can you see a tiger with a 1000-year old fort in the background? Or lazing languidly after an afternoon nap in a medieval summer palace? Or a tigress regally surveying her kingdom from a royal ‘chhatri’?

I must confess to a special affinity to Ranthambhore. It’s where I saw my first tiger and many, many more over the years, and the bond has only grown stronger. Thanks to my friend and naturalist extraordinaire, Hemraj Meena, I have closely followed the fortunes of several of Ranthambhore’s tigers over the last decade, so much so that they actually feel like family – any good news or new cubs are cause for celebration and any bad news feels like a punch in the gut.

We went to Ranthambhore twice on this trip. The first time was more like a pitstop en route to Dudhwa. And the other was the finale of this leg of my Wildlife Wander. Both times, Ranthambhore outdid itself, almost as if it taken it upon itself to provide me with the best tiger sightings across my three month trip. And, in addition to the tigers, we spent an incredible few days at Hemraj’s Tiger Home with Karen and Simon Spavin, hugely travelled wildlife enthusiasts and incredibly knowledgeable birders and photographers. We also had the privilege of spending time with Nalla Muthu, film-maker par excellence and probably India’s finest wildlife storyteller. It was fascinating to see his skill, passion and patience at work. It’s no easy task especially given that most of the time you have no idea where to find your stars! Sometimes for days or weeks on end. And even when you do find them, they are usually in no mood to shoot, or probably give you a few fleeting glimpses. Much like our Bollywood superstars!

T19, one of Ranthambhore's dominant tigresses
T19 polishing off her kill
On our first trip we saw T19 with her cubs, together with their father T28. She was with her male cubs amid thick lantana, finishing off a chital kill. As she gnawed at the remains, she was constantly snarling at one cub, who was angling for a quick bite or seven. Finally he got too close and she reared up, gave him a tight smack and then dragged the kill away while he lay down like a sulking little child. Then, they all came into the open and disappeared into a nala. One male cub emerged further ahead where his dad lay in the water. Father and son shared a few companionable minutes before the cub was nudged away by the big male. He’d had a bad day at work – injuries from a territorial fight, so really wasn’t in a mood to babysit a frisky youngster.

Big Daddy T28 (or Star Male) licking his wounds after a fight
We now had tigers in 3 different directions, so we had to choose which one to focus on. We decided to stay with the big male and he rewarded us by moving out from the water hole to lie in the open. Then the family slowly came together to join him, but a quick little growl told them that he was still not quite in the mood for conversation. So T19 and two cubs moved away and we followed them.

A cub mock charges at us 
Mum keeps a close eye on us
Then, one of the cubs decided that he wanted to play catch… he stalked us through the bushes and then suddenly made a dash towards us. Of course he didn’t really intend to come close and quietly sat in the bush, smiling to himself, I’m sure.

While we were with the cubs, I was thinking to myself, here we are, completely neglecting a huge male tiger, barely 20 metres away. How often are you so spoiled for choice? And then, something told me to turn my head away from the cubs. And to my amazement I saw T28 barely 15 feet from us, walking head on towards our gypsy. No one had seen him come. I was so awestruck, I forgot to line up my camera. He walked up, veered away at the last minute into a bush a few feet to our left, marked his scent and walked alongside our jeep and down the road. I found that I had stopped breathing for a few seconds. It was an absolutely incredible moment.

Brown Fish Owl 
Red vented bulbul having a drink

Checkered Keelback

Love the colors of the algae on the water
And that ended one of my most memorable trips into Ranthambhore’s forests. The next few safaris produced some really close shaves, where we missed tigers by a few minutes here and there. But it was more than made up by all the other things we saw. In one of the waterbodies we saw a number of beautiful checkered keelbacks. We also saw vultures (long necked and king vultures) brown fish owls and finally, a beautiful lake covered with impossibly coloured purple algae.

And that was our first Ranthambhore visit. One improbably fantastic tiger sighting, that we reckoned would be impossible to outdo. But little did we know how much more Ranthambhore had in store on our return leg!

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 10:15 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 1/2 hour journey on excellent roads.

Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to complete opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 

For those who prefer a home-like ambience, there is none better than Tiger Home ( built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well meet Nalla sir as well and hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.


At the mid-level, two of Ranthambhore's best options are the Ranthambhore Regency ( and Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

There are many many other hotels and resorts, but for me, home is Tiger Home!

Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 25-30 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book 2 gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there is invariably some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

In addition to the core area of the National Park, the adjoining Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary is also very pretty. Open even in the monsoon, this forest has beautiful high mountains and lots of flowing streams. There are tigers here as well as leopards and hyenas. Certainly worth a visit.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen and comfortable clothes and headgear is important. It can get equally cold in winter, so a thick jacket is a definite requirement.

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.