Saturday, May 12, 2012

Of Forts, Forests and Ferocious Felines: Ranthambhore

Being a faceless part of the concrete jungle called Mumbai, my wife and I yearn to travel out all the time. Over three years now, we have become Big Cat enthusiasts, traveling to different parts of the country in search of the elusive striped cat of India, the tiger!

Ranthambhore: The only place to find tigers lazing on a King's Courtyard

My love for tigers started when I happened to visit the Jim Corbett National Park 5 years ago. Traveling though the dense foliage of Uttrakhand's jungles, I was enchanted by the sights, sounds and stories of India's national animal. I read and re-read the enchanting stories of Jim Corbett in his numerous books and was transported to the lands and times of tiger abundance. Since then, I have been to Jim Corbett park again, Pench National Park, Kanha and now Ranthambhore.

One such recent trip took us to the epicenter of tiger renaissance in India: Ranthambhore. Wedged between the Aravalli hills and the Vindhya range, it is a rare stretch of plenty in the middle of a barren Rajasthan. Vast stretches of scrubby foliage are dotted frequently by beautiful lily filled lakes. Ranthambhore (Sawai Madhopur) used to be the capital city of several Rajput dynasties and the majestic fort in the middle of the national park stands testimony to those romantic periods. Today, nature and history have mingled to result in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places to spot tigers in the world.

Ranthambhore Fort: Ranked 2nd most difficult fort to capture after Chittor

Ranathambhore comes from the combination of the words, 'Rann' (battlefield), Stambh (pillar) and Bhanwar (gorge). The fort is built on a single piece of a pillar like mountain and is separated from the battle filed by a deep gorge. This princely hunting ground was the first area to have been earmarked as a Tiger reserve by Indira Gandhi at the start of the highly successful Project Tiger in the early 70s. Under the aegis of the supremely capable Fateh Singh Rathore, the then park ranger, Ranthambhore transformed into the poster boy of tiger conservation and renaissance in India. The first thing that Fateh Singh did was to relocate the villages that were in the middle of the park. Sans any human intervention, the tigers of Sawai Madhopur started venturing out more into the open and returning to their natural glory. The reserve is dotted with large lotus filled lakes which add a charm of their own to the dry landscapes around. Tigers hunting prey in water, was filmed for the first time ever, in these lakes of Ranthambhore.

 T16, the female Tigress who owns the lake territory now

Our main quest of going there was to spot Machali. No not the aquatic one, but the most famous tigress of Ranthambhore who had ruled the lake area for over an astonishing 10 years. Fateh Singh gave her the name as the markings on top of her eyes resembles a fish. Tonnes of documentaries have been made by Nat Geo, Animal Planet and Discovery on the grace and power of this acclaimed tigress. Her life and exploits have been followed and well documented by renowned Tiger activist Valmik Thapar. Her fights with the 12 ft crocodiles to protect her cubs have become legendary and the reason she lost 3 out of 4 canines. A ‘lifetime achievement award’ has been bestowed upon her by Travel Operators for Tigers, a UK-based travel industry lobby that estimates that she alone has added $10 million over the past decade to Ranthambore’s local economy because of the popular draw she is. But the course of nature is just and inevitable. The brave tigress who fought larger intruding males and marauding crocs was eventually booted out of her prime lake territory by her own daughter and relegated to a bald patch of land close by. Tigers which usually live for 14 to 15 years, have a miracle in Machli who is still roaming the jungles at 17. It is another thing that forest guards now regularly tie up prey for her to keep her going, but who is complaining.

Machli's famous croc fight

India has the largest population of wild tigers in the world, around 1500. Apart from the Royal Bengal Tiger found in India, the larger Siberian Tigers are found in the colder areas of Russia and the much smaller Sumatran Tigers in Indonesia. Tigers are solitary like most big cats. They stay in dense or semi dense jungle habitats covering large territories. Females usually have smaller territories around water bodies, while a male tiger's territory can span across two to three female territories. The male and female come together only for mating and bringing up the litter is entirely the responsibility of the female. Cubs usually stay with the mothers till they are two years old and then move away to claim their own territories, with females settling close to their mothers and males traveling large distances to find their own place. Ranthambore came in the news again recently for the most unusual story of a male tiger adopting two orphaned cubs, which has been documented for the first time ever in the wild. ( Tigers are one of the big cats which love the water and spend the hotter times of the day in the cool of small lakes and streams. The tiger's favorite prey, the large Sambar deer, loves to feed on the algae and lilies that grow in the lake and often find themselves unsafe even in the middle of the water bodies. They are at the top of the food chain in almost all habitats and prefer hunting Wild boars or any of the deer/antelope families like Spotted deer (chital), Sambar, NeelGai, Barasingha etc. They could only be disturbed by the occasional elephant herds or large wild dog (Dhols) packs. They can get into occasional conflicts with the Indian Sloth bears and one such incident was captured by the famous photographer Aditya 'Dicky' Singh at Ranthamore last year, where a female bear carrying cubs, warded off, not one but two fully grown tigers. (

 Machli fighting a big male to save her kill

My mother, Dr. P.S. Geetha is Professor of Kannada and has several books to her credit. She had the opportunity to work with one India's earlier wildlife photographers, M.Y Ghorpade. Mr. Ghorpade belonged to the royal family of Sandur in Karnataka and was the Finance Minister of Karnataka. My mother, with her friend, translated two of his books on wildlife photography to Kannada, Winged Friends (ರೆಕ್ಕೆಯ ಮಿತ್ರರು) and Sunlight & Shadows ( ನೆರಳು ಬೆಳಕು). It was a great honor when her books were released by award winning wild life documentary makers, Kripakar and Senani, who won critical acclaim for following a pack of wild dogs for 14 years in Bandipur and made a path breaking documentary for Nat Geo. I was not really very keen on observing birds till this trip, but started appreciating them, after my mother started giving more information about them. We had the good fortune of sighting very rare and beautiful birds like the Paradise FlyCatcher and the Red Necked Vulture. Next trip onwards, I will be armed with a good pair of binoculars to ensure I don't miss out on all the flying beauties.

We had the good fortune of spotting tigers twice at Ranthambore, once very well and the other fleetingly. We were lucky. Coming generations might not be. Tigers may end up only in photography books or posters of Goddesses. We all know the heart breaking stories of Panna and Sariska reserves, where the Government refused to believe that no tigers there. They not only rubbished the reports but also went on to make tall claims about flourishing tiger populations based on archaic methods of tiger counting like pug mark tracking. This government apathy combined with the rampant poaching to cater to the massive black market for tiger parts in Chinese medicine, doesn't bode well to the remaining few wild tigers in India. The ever expanding population of the country is always fighting to claim the last stretches of forest cover. Its left to few champions like Valmik Thapar, the media and the concerned citizens of the country to find a middle path between the human tiger conflict. The world successfully managed to save elephants from extinction in the mid 80s, by putting an international ban on ivory trade. Its time to save the tigers this time.Otherwise, it might be just too late!

Before it is too late

P.S: None of the above photos are mine. I wish they were! But not everyone is as fortunate and talented to take such pictures. :) To see what we managed to capture, see my Facebook album!


SanjayB said...

Good read. The tigers need all the friends they can find; looks like they've found one in you!

Hema Iyer said...

This is a very good article.