Tiger Tales from Ranthambore – by Shobha Gopinath
Tigers are truly majestic, a jewel in Indian wildlife tourism. ORYX Guest, Shobha Gopinath, details her experience of photographing the regal cat in Ranthambore National Park on recent India photography tour.
(This article originally appeared on Shobha Gopinath’s travel blog, “Travel Tales From Here and There.”
Noor’s thoughts: The sun is relentless. The temperature has soared to an unbearable degree. My lids are heavy and I haven’t eaten in days. I hear the nilgai, sambhar and spotted deer and even those pesky langurs on high alert, emitting loud calls alerting their brethren and the animal kingdom as I slowly and languorously make my way through the arid semi-desert forest to a nearby watering hole. Is it possible that the beautiful peacock also joins in on the cacophony? Sigh. I am parched. How wonderful some cool water would be now to quench my dry thirsty throat. I make my way softly on my padded feet through the dappled forest unable to think of anything except water. As I mark my territory I realise another has been here – how annoying.
Blast! Those strange beings are back in packs. They are in that green structure rolling around on four round things, leaning out with an even stranger protuberance from their eyes. These bipeds can’t seem able to use their legs nor it seems their tiny eyes. The green structure is noisy and emits a ghastly smell. Sigh. I can either walk in their midst or take the long way through the forest. Should I have some fun and let out a roar? That’s sure to scatter them. No, I shall just make my way through … Let them hover excitedly about. Such pitiful creatures.
My thoughts: On seeing her, my thoughts were jumbled – Tiger!! What shutter speed?? Tiger right in front of my eyes! What ISO?? Oh! She is so beautiful … what a supremely magnificent creature. Shutter speed is too low! She’s moving away …aaah …all this while we were flung about like rag dolls as our driver frantically but expertly moved our jeep into the optimum position for a good photographic angle.
And so began our tiger photography tour. We set out that afternoon on our first game drive in India’s famed Ranthambore National Park. We could hardly contain our excitement at the prospect of seeing tigers in the wild. A first for all of us. We were in two hardy Maruti Suzuki Gyspy, ideal for the rough terrain. A tiger sighting is not guaranteed. Many have made the journey and spent days seeking this shy elusive creature and have come away disappointed. So we tempered our expectations and took in the arid landscape of Zone 1 where we were. It was hot. The temperature was 42C in the shade. We had an ample stock of ice water and a liberal supply of sunscreen. As we drove along, low and behold – a tiger! Her giant padded paws allowing her to walk silently through the forest. It was unbelievable how close she was. She was not deterred by our jeeps and continued on nonchalantly. Her name was Noor, Queen of Ranthambore.
We learned on our tiger safari tour that Noor’s tiger code is T-39. Each tiger is given a code and once they are past 2 years old, they are given a name. We were to also learned that Noor was indeed irritated when we saw her as another tiger had marked her territory. Tigers, unlike lions are solitary creatures.
I am not what you would call a ‘photo safari virgin’, having been on two photo safaris in Africa. I have seen a crazed lion looking ominously in our direction, a family of lions feasting, leopards and cheetahs crunching on the bones of their prey with blood dripping from their mouths; but for some reason the prospect of encountering a tiger caused me some apprehension. Perhaps it is because of the tales of the harimau (tiger in Malay) that I grew up hearing – the elusive, powerful and feared creature of the Malayan jungles, an ubiquitous character in many a Malay fable. (The tiger is even given a place of importance in both Malaysia’s and Singapore’s coat of arms.) And whose imagination hasn’t been fired by Shere Khan of Kipling’s Jungle Book?- “Thou art of the jungle or not of the jungle…” I know which category I belong to!
The next day and all the days that followed on our tiger photography tour had the same routine but our days were hardly routine. Each day was special with each sighting. Not only of the tigers, but the other wildlife of the reserve were captivating too. At the centre of the reserve is the imposing and evocative ruins of the once majestic Ranthambore Fort. The ancient 13th century fort sits on a hill and extends more than 6km over what used to be the hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Jaipur.
Situated inside the park are also Hindu temples dedicated to Lords Ganesha and Shiva and a Jain temple. The locals would make their way on foot to the temples on certain puja days. How they do this when tigers roam free is beyond me. In fact, on one of our drives we found the tiger called Jai lolling among some ruins, taking an afternoon nap.
While we watched his every twitch and turn for hours, we also noticed on the hill slightly behind the ruins were villagers making their way to a nearby shrine. What risk they take for their faith!
That first afternoon on our tiger safari tour, we were lucky enough to see the even more elusive Indian leopard.
We were an all-women photography expedition led by Oryx Photo Tours’ Penny Robartes. We bonded easily and effortlessly. Almost from the get-go, the 5 of us got along famously and it didn’t take long for us to descend into peals of riotous laughter, teasing and ribbing each other. It was that rare occurrence when a few like-minded individuals meet, get to know each other and end up genuinely liking each other. Bablu Khan, our local guide who accompanied us throughout our tiger photograph tour, became one of our group too – joining us in our high jinx. We couldn’t have asked for a better combination of individuals to travel with.
The next morning, before we set out on tour tiger photo safari we were given buffs to protect us from the sand and dust. They were much needed. There was grit between my teeth that first afternoon. We looked like a gang of bandits with our buffs on and thus the name we gave ourselves.
Ranthambore National Park is nearly 1400sq.km and divided into 10 zones. Each morning the forest department allocates by ballot the zone that each vehicle is permitted to go. There are whole day permits and half-day permits. Ours was the latter which meant we did our drives in two halves. Each day began at 5.30am and we had to leave the park by 9.30am. The mid-day breaks during our tiger safari was much needed just to get out of the soaring temperatures. The other advantage was of course being able to use the facilities! Unlike Africa where bush breaks are allowed, here you are not permitted to get out of the vehicle for any reason whatsoever. If there were an urgent need, we’d have to make the long bouncy ride back to the check point at the entrance of each zone and the facilities there had much to be desired. So, while we needed water desperately because of the heat, we also needed to be mindful how much we were consuming. Lovely Catch-22!
During our break, we would head back to our rooms and adopt the ritual of cleaning our cameras and lenses, blowing and wiping off the sand as best as possible, downloading our photos and then meet before lunch to share our images and photography notes. Ours was a wonderfully supportive team and we oohed and aahed at each other’s images. We had our images critiqued by Penny who would gently point out where me might improve or compliment us as the case may be. After a sumptuous lunch, we would set out again at 2.30pm and would have to be out of the park by 6.30pm. This would be followed by a luxurious shower to remove the incredible crust and grime of the day and then we would gather for dinner. The food was delicious and varied and conversation fun and interesting.
We didn’t always go to the same zones as a group. Our small group was split into two jeeps – with one group going to one zone and the other to another zone with Penny and Bablu taking turns between our two jeeps. Such was the luck of the draw that our friends had a deja-vu thing happening with Zone 1 several times. Despite that, the photographer’s eye always sees different things each time and our friends still came away with exceptional photos, just not always of tigers. They had the amazing luck of capturing a sloth-bear close up! The jeep I was in with had a little bit more luck in terms of a varied zonal experience. Even though we offered to swap, the ladies refused, the philosophy being ‘It is what it is’. The days we were allotted the same zones were greeted with much glee.
Our drivers and trackers on our India photo tour were truly skilled. If not for their knowledge of tiger behaviour and of the terrain, sightings would not have been possible. The tracker in our jeep, KK had a wealth of experience and knowledge not only of tigers but of all the birds and animals found in the reserve. He loaded us with so much information, it wasn’t possible to remember it all without taking notes … and taking notes was not possible when you’re bouncing about rodeo style. Our driver, Man Singh was rather skilled in driving in reverse over any terrain. If that’s what it took, he did it with complete confidence. So much so we nicknamed him ‘Reverse Singh’. He even helped out another jeep that was stuck in a precarious position which required careful reversing uphill over a stony patch. There were other times when we were at full throttle trying to reach an area where a tiger was sighted which left us holding on for dear life. At other times the two drivers would race each other – all in good fun.
The reserve was remarkable in how different each zone was from the next. The landscape and terrain differed significantly – from beautiful lakes and ponds, to patches of brilliant green, to dead forests. There were areas where the trees seemed like they were drawn into the landscape like a sketch. There was stunning beauty all around us to fill our senses, tiger or no tiger. Tracking a tiger is no easy business. They are solitary shy animals who prefer to stay deep in the forest. But in summer, when the heat gets unbearable, they venture out in search of lakes and pools to dip themselves in. That is why the height of summer is the best time to go on tiger photography tour as the hot weather draws them out.
There were many times, after driving hither thither, we would cut off the engine and listen to Nature. It is indescribable, that feeling when you are parked in a forest listening to the many animal and bird sounds. Those were also the moments to have our packed breakfast – vegetable cutlets, hard boiled eggs, a roti wrap, a soft drink, crisps and bananas. Not forgetting the delicious pickle that came along with it. When the two groups were out together we would park alongside each other and chat while we had our breakfast.
Calls of the Wild
There were days when we would see pug marks in the sand and know that there’s a tiger in the vicinity. KK would be able to tell from the pug mark if it was a male or female. It’s amazing how large their paws are!
The other way of tracking a tiger on an India photo tour is to listen to the alarm calls of the animals. There was this instance when the langurs were so agitated and swinging from tree to tree screeching out the alarm and it turned out to be a leopard.
The tiger is expert at staying silent and in hiding. It might even be metres away and you would never know. There were instances when even the other animals were unaware of a tiger’s presence, as happened to us. We had cut off the engine and were photographing langurs when suddenly she appeared out of nowhere! She walked out of the shrubs between our two vehicles!
I can’t help but think that she might have been watching us, sniggering perhaps? When she appeared, we were sent into another tailspin trying to adjust the camera for the right settings as just minutes previously we were photographing langurs in bright sunlight and where she was, was shaded. We laughed hysterically at our clumsiness when we met for dinner that night. Penny was the exception of course, her assured commands of the settings rang out to us as we fumbled with our dials. One among us thought her camera was not working when in fact she had her buff over the lens! You can imagine our uproarious laughter when she told us about it.
A word about mother tigresses – they are single mothers, having the sole responsibility for the caring and upbringing of their cubs, hiding and protecting the little ones from apex predators and even other male tigers. She teaches them the skills required to survive and when they are 2 year old sub-adults, nudges them out to fend for themselves. It is not unknown for her own cubs to challenge and banish her, forcing her to move to another territory.
‘The Tiger Who Redefined Nature’
While it is the norm that the female has the responsibility for raising and protecting her cubs, the story of Dollar is worthy of mention. Our tracker, told us the story and I later googled it. When tigress, Kachida, died leaving behind 2 vulnerable cubs, it was their father Dollar, that stepped in to care for them, essentially taking on the mother’s role. The forest rangers had been following and filming the fate of the two cubs and were astonished at this occurrence. Wildlife experts from all over the world came to observe and study this extraordinary phenomenon. Both cubs survived, thanks to their father. Dollar was to display his maternal side once again, when his next mate, Sundari, disappeared leaving tiny cubs behind. He stepped in again, assuring their survival. We did not get the opportunity to see this remarkable, unusual male tiger.
Other than the tiger codes that they are given, the tigers are often named by their prominent and unique identification marks. For example, Dollar is named such because of a pattern on his flank that resembles the $ sign; and Noor means ‘glow’ due to her wavy patterns which glow. She goes by other names too – ‘Mala’, which means necklace, due to the decorative bead-like stripes on her side flanks and ’Sultanpur’ as her mother was a Sultanpur female T-13 (Chotti). With numerous names, one can appreciate why the tiger coding system is needed.
A Tiger a Day
We were incredibly lucky that we were able to see at least one tiger everyday on our India photography tour! We saw 11 tigers and had 14 sightings in total. Here are a few of them…
There were many special sightings – one of them was seeing the two brothers, Jai and Veeru sitting quietly together in the woods. We very nearly missed seeing them but Bablu’s sharp eye caught them and he called out “Tiger, tiger, tiger!” and what a magical scene it was. It was all too brief though as one of them got up minutes later and disappeared into the woods.
Seeing Arrowhead and her two cubs was another special moment. She had found an ideal place deep in the forest near a small pool where she had stashed her sambhar kill. One could only see them through binoculars or a telephoto lens and that too through branches and foliage. It was spectacular nonetheless.
(If you are interested in seeing photos and videos from this trip, please click on the link at the end of this post).
The Humans of Ranthambore
During our tiger safari, we stayed at the Ranthambore Kothi, themed on British bungalows of the past. The staff were all men – courteous, attentive and friendly. Their attention to detail was commendable. From our morning coffee and biscuits, to our packed breakfasts, our lunches and dinners – they took note of each of our likes, dislikes, allergies etc and made sure we each had want we needed.
We met some interesting guests too, especially 9 year old Sheerin from Calcutta. Her parents were treating her to this adventure as she had done well in her exams. She was such a sweet girl, who captured our hearts. When we learnt that they had not had a sighting in the two days they were there, we felt so bad and genuinely hoped and asked the Universe to make it happen – and it did. It was worth it to see how thrilled she was. I think we would have been the more disappointed if she hadn’t!
Our drivers and trackers on our tiger photography tour – Neeraj, Mukesh, Kamal K and Man Singh – what great company they were through the scorching heat and long sometimes hairy and bumpy drives. Sometimes, we just sat in the shade and had a good yarn while listening out for alarm calls. None of our experiences would have been possible if not for them and their expertise. As for Bablu and the Bandit Queens our adventure hasn’t ended yet, next stop – Varanasi!
If you would like to see more photographs of this trip, please click here.
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