Mismanagement, corruption and resulting crowd menace at Ranthambhore is increasing every year. It is no more a place where you can watch a tiger walking the forest in peace. After every visit, I said to myself that this is going to be the last time. But the tigers of Ranthambhore keep bringing me back. We had a sighting of T19’s cubs last year when they were just 3 months old. They were barely larger than a house cat last June (2014). Now they are sub adult cubs of one and half year. And they were treating tourists and photographers to some lifetime’s sighting. They were everywhere in FB – playing in water, chasing crocs, play fighting, suckling. The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is. - Jack Hanna. So I could not held me back. May be one last time to Ranthambhore before moving out of Delhi.
Summer is the best time for watching the tiger in the wild. Temperatures in Rajasthan during peak summers can soar to mind boggling degrees. It is not easy to travel in an open gypsy, specially the journey of 3-4km from your hotel till you enter the park, when scorching loo brush you at more than 40km an hour. Yet, more and more people are braving the sun to travel in summers, even to hot places like Ranthambhore. Demand for safari seats have gone up drastically over the years. @Rs.750 per seat or @Rs.4500 per gypsy, safaris do not come cheap. Most regulars to the park knows which zone to visit to get maximum value for their money. Booking a safari online in your desired zone is tough, in fact near impossible these days. The controversial online safari booking process has grown in notoriety this year. Supply is as short as just 3 gypsy in each zone as against a train full of crowd clamouring for it. There is sheer madness for online booking. Imagine a situation when you land there without any booking! You will have to shell out 1000-1500 per seat in gypsy depending on the day of the week. Or take a horrible ride in canter with a motley crowd of 20 others, that too at a hefty rate of about 600 per seat.
|Tiger - Ranthambhore (High resolution image for professional use is available for sale at Getty Image)|
The prime attraction this summer was T19 with her three sub adult cubs roaming in zone 3. So everyone who are familiar with Ranthambhore wants to be in zone 3. There were only 18 seats available for online booking in every safari session for zone 3 (or an equal no in each of the zones). Supply was so short that the demand for zone 3 was unimaginable. Thanks to a friend, I had to acquire special skill to beat it and manage booking for zone 3. This happened after failed attempt over 4 nights, with even money getting deducted on two occasion. Finally I got lucky on fifth night. Once I had managed zone 3 booking, planning the trip for other zone over 3 days was cakewalk. For all those unfamiliar with this zone business may refer some of earlier posts on Ranthambhore. Tiger dynamics changes every couple of years. Therefore, even after ticking all boxes right in your trip plan, sighting a tiger is a matter of luck.
This year’s trip to Rnathambhore was my longest till date, with 6 safaris spanning over 4 days. Ranthambhore was rocking this year. Baring the first safari on Sunday afternoon, which was actually booked to fill the spare time, we had ‘photographic’ tiger sighting. As a wildlife photographer, and someone who had seen many tigers in wild, a ‘photographic’ sighting is all that matters. Even one photographic sighting out of 4 or 5 I generally do in a trip, sooths the soul. Here we got super sighting in 5 out of 6 safaris this year.
However it did not start off that well. My first safari in zone 4 was actually more of an afterthought or ‘fill in’ kind of arrangement to utilise my spare time after arrival in Ranthambhore. Safari in Zone-4 is a bone rattling experience because of rocky roads. Though I had fond memories of zone-4, this time I had no hope and hence I did not even carry my camera expecting nothing to see. My only sighting of legendary Machli was in zone 4 and we had a close encounter with elusive T41. Sultan had also reportedly moved into zone 4. Even though jungle always throws up surprises, expecting to see any of the tigers was a farfetched hope. As expected it went blank. However as were exiting the park, a disappointing piece of news passed onto us was that T19 had moved with her cubs into adjoining zone previous day, and has not been seen since either in zone 2 or 3. They might have made a kill deep inside and hence were not coming out. It was enough to plan a seed of worry in my mind.
Next morning, leaving our can of worries behind in hotel, we set off our next safari in zone-3, touted as sure shot sighting zone. It took me 5 night’s attempt to get zone 3 booking. The bad news of previous evening was confirmed barely minutes into the safari. The T19 family had not returned to their lakeside palace. After checking the area around Padam talao for sign of T19 families return to the lake, our guide decided to explore upper areas where another tiger T64 is occasionally seen. We went up and down, but could not track down any tiger more than one hour into the safari. This was supposed to be sure sighting zone! Everyone was clamouring for it. I too had come only after getting zone-3 booking. It was rocking for last few months with 4-5 tiger regularly roaming the scene, and here, we are yet to find even a single tiger. I know that despite ticking all boxes right in your trip plan, sighting a tiger is a matter of luck. ‘Best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray’. That day, we were in zone-3 and the tigers were in adjoining zone-2. We would be going to zone-2 next day, and what if tigers return to zone-3 that night. The thought was frightening. The ghost of not sighting a tiger in any of the safaris in this trip started haunting me. Couple of my friend had this misfortune once. In that trip together I beat them by the barest margin of just a single tiger sighting in four safaris. You have to be extremely unlucky not to see a tiger in 4-5 safaris.
|A tiger amidst dust cloud at Ranthambhore. Image courtsey my daughter Swathi.|
With an ever increasing bag of woes and the sun over our head getting hotter by minutes, we came back to Rajbagh area, expecting against hope for one of the T19 cubs to return. We had about two hours of safari time left with nothing to do but to wait in hope. “The miserable have no other medicine but hope.” Then came the moment which was change the course of our fate in next 48 hours. We saw a gypsy hurrying onto the dirt track we were standing. In one of them was the national award winning wildlife film maker S Nallamuthu. I know him for quite some time now. On seeing me, he informed that tiger is reported at a spot called platform. We too hit the dusty trail left behind by Nalla’s gypsy. And there he was. T64, the male cub from T19’s last litter was cooling off majestically in lake, with the Ranthambhore fort and Rajbagh hunting palace as backdrop. It was a dream backdrop for a Ranthambhore tiger frame. T64 took the opportunity of T19’s absence to visit the area where he grew up. We were looking for him up in the hills, but he was sleeping by the lake. T19, though his mother, no more tolerate T64 in lake area for the safety of her new litter. The sighting soothed our frayed nerves. Now we were relieved that we had a tiger sighting and the trip will not go blank. I cannot express this sense of relief in word.
More importantly, this was the moment that had changed our luck. In the afternoon safari, we caught up with T64 again, before he went up the hill to cross over to zone-4. My two safaris in zone-3 was in expectation of T19 and three cubs. But they were zone-2 that day. Now I have full day booked for zone-2 next day. What if T19 moves back to zone-3 that night? And, with T24 no more there to give a darshan, what if we do not get to see a tiger tomorrow. Many IFs remained unanswered that night.
Next morning we entered zone 2 with an air of uncertainty. Barely half kilometre into the park, there were they – the T19 family. Partly hidden behind tall grasses, they were lying by a dry nullah. We were informed that all 4 of the family were there. As cavalcade of gypsy’s started arriving one by one, T19, the mother of the cubs got up and started walking. Two of the cubs also got up and followed her. We did not find the third cub though. As the tigers started moving, the madness of vehicle started. Fortunately the mother and the cubs went different way. Therefore the drivers and guides of the vehicles were making choices on the tracks to hit.
As the commotion continued, the cubs sat down to became invisible, while T19 perched herself up in almost open. Few canters arrived by then and join the hordes of gypsys already there. Officially there is supposed to be only 5 gypsy. But there were too many. How and why is known to most regulars to Ranthambhore. We got caught up in traffic jam. I hate Ranthmbhore for this madness. If we give tigers more space, they will be more relaxed. What is required is an open view, not close view. Unfortunately most people do not have long lenses like photographers. Instead of enjoying the moment, they too would like to click with their PS or mobile or whatever they have, without realising the banality of it. If vehicles are parked sparsely, rather than crowding around the tiger, everyone will get a good view. I will love if one of the tiger of Ranthambhore turn charger. But then they may send him to zoo like Ustad.
T19 decided to excuse herself of the scene and went down a deep nullah. Meanwhile one of the cubs came out to a waterhole by the road. Vehicles started to converge there. One more cub joined in after some time. Despite of the crowd, I managed to get some pleasing frames. The overcast sky lent lovely diffused light for the scene. As I had only half the gypsy, it was not easy to manoeuvre my heavy 400mm lens. My daughter would not allow me to use her 70-200. I missed my old warhorse 100-400. In Corbett, I generally use to hire a full gypsy. But in Ranthambhore, it is very costly @ 4500/- per gypsy. That too when you are doing 5-6 safaris. I was happy with the frames, given the limitations of sharing the gypsy with 6 persons. After full three hours of tiger sighting, we returned to hotel, all sporting smug smiles.
The good news for the evening safari was that the cubs decided stay back where we had left them in the morning. Therefore, we had another round of super sighting, but in different light conditions in the afternoon safari. After spending about an hour with the cubs, cooling off in the waterhole, our guide opined that we should go up and explore other areas and look for other tigers. We had enough of the cubs for the day. Two gypsy were ahead of us as we hit the road winding up a hill. On turning a bend, we saw the two vehicle ahead of us reversing. Our guide immediately realised that a tiger is coming straight at us on the road. When a tiger comes your way, you are supposed to reverse and give way. But then the inevitable occurred.
Another gypsy came behind us and its driver was shouting at us. He was telling our driver that ‘tera tanki phut gaya’. Your petrol tank had ruptured. As the tiger was about hundred meter away, our driver checked and found petrol leaking through a big crack. We all felt the vehicle hitting a rock while crossing a stream some 50 mtrs downstream. It is quite usual in safari. What is unusual is a ruptured tank. ‘There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed.’ Driver had the means to stop the leak, but as the tiger was approaching us, he could not get down. Now he was worried that we might have no fuel left by the time tiger crosses us. As the vehicle ahead of us were shouting us to go back, our driver managed to bring the vehicle to a point where they could barely cross us. Then he positioned the vehicle in a downward position as the hole was towards the rear of the tank. Keeping it downward will drain the petrol slower.
By now the tigress T19 had almost reached us. She was surprised that we have not moved back. She stopped about 15 feet from our gypsy. She looked at us and then stood up holding a tree by the road, picking up scent left by her kins. May be smell of petrol leaked was confusing her. Her behaviour was clearly indicating that she was expecting us to give way. But we were stuck. Could not tell her ‘tanki phut gaya’. Our gypsy was parked tightly by the hill, leaving barely 4-5 feet of space on the road. As we were not bulging, she explored the possibility of going down. But it was steep gorge on that side. Finally she decided to cross our gypsy, walking by almost the edge of the road. We were told to sit tight and not make any sound or movement. She should not feel threatened at all while crossing us. Trepidation in all six occupants of the gypsy were palpable. ‘Do not blame God for having created the tiger, but thank him for not having given it wings’. As she walked passed us, she kept an eye on our vehicle all the time.
As the tense moments passed, and the tiger had reached a safe distance, our driver to get down and managed to plug the leak with soap and cloth. However, almost all the fuel has drained by then. The driver and guide said that in their career spanning over 10-15 years, this is the first time that such an incident had occurred. What an experience for us too. We will never forget those minutes. I had couple of tyre punctures during safaris earlier. But never something like this. The driver decided that as we would be going mostly downhill, we would reach the Jhalra gate if we make a dash. There they could get some help or a replacement vehicle.
The driver managed to turn around in whatever space he had and then made a dash. Soon we faced the road block of vehicles still flocking the cubs by the waterhole. Our driver shouted at them to give way, else if he stops all might get blocked. We managed to wade our way through the crowd, and finally even out of the Sherpur gate. Thanks to very skilful driving by the driver. Even the last drop of fuel was consumed and the vehicle come to a halt. Our safari ended one hour earlier that day. But it was a safari we will never forget.
It has been an eventful trip till then. We were pretty happy with the sightings. Therefore we set out for our 6th and the final safari to zone 3 on morning of day-4 without any expectations. And best things happens when you have no expectations. May be.
Within minutes of entering the gate, we noticed a couple of gypsy. The behaviour of the occupants clearly pointed to presence of a tiger. We reached the spot in no time. There she was, crouching behind a scrub, lying in wait for a herd of wild boar. One of the female cubs of T19 had moved into zone-3 overnight. The barren landscape provided a great viewing of the stalking. Due to her inexperience, the hunting attempt failed. The cubs are still learning. Then she went onto give us some wonderful sighting and photo opportunities that morning. She walked couple of kilometres around the Padam Talao, scent marking, chasing deer, before finally disappearing over the dhonk trees up in the hill. This female cub had grown very bold and have started to stay alone of late. She has the blood of Machli. May be another Machli is in the making.
With the lone tiger of zone-3 gone for the day, the activities had now shifted to Jhlara as news of other tigers attempting to cross over to zone-3 were pouring in. There is a nullah by choti chatri, where brethren from zone 2 and 3 exchange information. However we got to see only one more of the cubs before our time was over. A happy ending depends on where one decides to stop. It was time to end our journey this year, on happy note.
The controversy over Ustad aka T24 had not died down. T24 had gone to jail. With it went to dust the reputation of some well-known people or so called tiger ‘experts’. Everyone has an opinion in the matter. My 13 year old daughter also had her view against this jailing of T24. Keeping in mind the sensitivity of the issue, I told my family not to raise the topic to any driver or guide, as they may differ our point of view. However, each of the 12 different guides and drivers, I met in the 6 safaris, voluntarily offered their view, blaming these few people for the debacle. They were all against the shifting of Ustad. They were not scared to name these guys and shower few abuses on them. Even if I do not name those few people, all familiar with the issue knows who they are. We missed you Ustad, in this trip, and in all the trips to come.