Finding the great cat in Ranthambore is no cakewalk. It's almost as if you have to meet all his subjects before the king will allow you a glimpse of his majestic self.
The tiger has, over the last decade, become a symbol of wildlife conservation in the country and Ranthambore, a refuge for wildlife royalty. Spread over a majestic 1394 square-kilometres, this reserve straddles the Aravallis and the Vindhyas.
The sharpest memory from the three-day trip in mid-January, apart from the tiger, is of the biting cold. Accustomed to a natural blanket of heat and sweat, I was unprepared for the dryness and chill of Rajasthan. Only my desire to see that great animal and photograph it in the wild kept me going. There was no sighting on the first day and the second day was lost to rain. It turns out I wasn’t the only one looking for the big cats. There were two other groups.
Under Project Tiger, a centrally-sponsored scheme, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) formed five appraisal teams in May 2012 to inspect and report on the status of tiger conservation in all 40 reserves in the country. The team deputed to Ranthambore had identified 50 tigers, including 23 cubs.
Also on the tiger trail were poachers. All tourist paths were marked and this group had deviated too far to have been lost. They were apprehended and later let off with a stern warning. Well, may be a little more than just a warning.
So the tigers were around, just never where I went. A landscape of dry, deciduous forest, Ranthambore is also home to a boggling variety of wildlife — leopard, jungle cat, chital, sambar, blue bull, chinkara, sloth bear, wild boar and rare birds, among many others — all of which have flourished as tiger populations rose.
Meanwhile, efforts are on to relocate families within the reserve zone to avoid incidents of man-animal conflict. The process is gradual. Fifteen villages — 1250 families — have been relocated since the inception of Project Tiger in 1973. NTCA is keeping the relocation project close to its chest. All I saw during this trip were demolished dwellings, homes of former residents. Questions are discouraged. I understood why; relocation is a sensitive issue and the NTCA is worried that the smallest controversy could derail the process. The taboo raised my interest, but I wasn’t inclined to pursue it. I was here for the tiger.
On the final day, accompanied by three others, including a friend from the NTCA, we covered a vast area of the reserve in our search for the big cat. Late in the afternoon, I got lucky. That’s the only word I can use.
It was a thrilling experience and, to be honest, it wouldn’t have been the same if I had met him on the first day. The tiger waited and taught me to see the rest of Ranthambore.