Tales of all eluding tiger are perhaps the most swapped stories among the eco-tourists.
I remember sharing tables and travel stories with complete unknowns at a non-descript coffee house in Kolkata a year and a half back. Those were the days when the realisation that there exist fine demarcations between travellers also, had not dawned on me. On that table that day, I gained that I was a cultural traveller – my palate suited to cities, markets, forts and palaces, and Raj-era buildings, occasionally sprinkled with mountains. On the other end sat the eco-tourists – hikers, climbers, bird watchers and nature lovers.
As I sat there, bartering my feelings for the renaissance city, Kolkata, I heard the Norwegians in the group talk about their experience at Sunderbans. They had witnessed the Royal Bengal Tiger. Such was their excitement that even after three days of living the experience, it was tedious for them to form words to capture it. The half-formed expressions were still enough to mesmerise all of us who had never seen a tiger before to gape at our table mates through the vapours oozing out of the tea cups that lay forgotten on our table.
That day I resolved to witness the most talked about the beast in the world in its habitat, the jungle.
And since then, I have been straining to catch a glimpse of the evasive beast.
Tiger spotting has perhaps become the most profitable tourist activity in recent years. Tapering numbers and shrinking habitats have made this a sought after activity among the impassioned eco-lovers and dabblers alike. Visit any of the national parks that accommodate tigers and you will find the place crawled by guides ready to bring you face-to-face with the tiger. Have a look around and you will find the tourist lodges adapting tiger in their names. A tiger is as much a commodity at these places as a bottle of Coca Cola. Sometimes you wonder who kills these tigers, and why.
Ranthambore National Park
In the continuing effort to glimpse the rarest of the rare, I visited Ranthambore National Park this time.
Ranthambore national park in Rajasthan is a ten-hour drive from Delhi, located in Sawai Madhopur district, approximately 130 kilometres from Jaipur. The road till Jaipur is a national highway; however, from there onwards, the road is an awful ride, with it being broken every few meters. The preferred way to reach Ranthambore is to take a train to Sawai Madhopur and a taxi for the short distance thereafter.
Dust laden earth of the park, with diluted forest cover, spread all over the approximate 400 sq. kms, seems an unlikely territory for the wildcats. However, the number talks a different language. Habitat for 35 tigers and 70 leopards, Ranthambore offers the best chance to the intrepid traveller to see these regal beasts. There are six routes inside the park and the legend tells us that the most probable to yield the tiger is the route 3. However, whether you will step on that route is decided by luck, that is if you get the number in the lottery. The times for safari are fixed, one being in the early morning and one in the evening. The safaris usually time around three hours. On account of narrow, dirt-laden tracks, the author suggests taking guided tours available easily outside the park rather than taking your own vehicle inside.
Without witnessing a tiger also, a visit to this jungle is a fulfilling experience. The other animals, deer, sambhar, cheetal to name few, are in abundance and are easy to spot. Rathambore happens to be a bird watcher’s paradise also.
Conservation attempts: need for the hour
According to the recent survey, with tiger population has reduced to a less than half of what it was in 2001-02. The reasons are threefold – reducing habitat, poaching of tigers and loss of food available to the tigers. It is not too late to reverse the cycle set on auto-destruction mode and proper actions to conserve what is remaining and to undo the damage unleashed in the last decade need to be taken. Though often criticized, Chinese tiger parks could be a model to replicate.
When tigers are getting killed everywhere and the situation is anything but bleak, the tiger conservation in Ranthambore has shown promise. The last decade was dismissal and the number had gone down. However, in last few years the tiger population has actually increased making this park a mild success story in the otherwise failed tiger conservation attempts blotted especially by the Sariska fiasco.
The day ends, the journey continues
As for my experience, the search continues. Despite nearly spending six hours inside the jungle spread over two days, I could not witness the spots or the stripes. Later in the day, after coming back from the park, I took a shower to scrub off the layer of dust that had engulfed me during the long hours of search. I sat outside in the balcony of my room that overlooked the boundary of the park. Behind me trickled the evening songs from the nearby village, while the loneliness of the dusk overwhelmed.
Some distance away, within an audible range, sat a European couple. Over their drinks, I heard them mention how splendid the stripes were. They resonated with the Norwegians.
This story appeared in The Hindu