Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tiger Safari - Fail!

Before the triumphant afternoon safari where we were lucky enough to witness a tiger pass before us, we had a morning safari with lackluster results. We had heard that May and June present the best opportunity for sightings in Ranthmbhore National Park with estimated success rates ranging from fifty to eighty percent. It was our guide that used the 80% figure. Either he was very confident or hadn't learned the finer points of setting low expectations with customers.

Even with the high success rates quoted, I wasn't overly confident. I've never had much luck spotting wildlife. I grew up visiting many of the national parks in the west during the summer and considered any mammal larger than a ground squirrel a rare sighting. My expectations were appropriately low.

In addition, my only prior experience with tiger safaris was a visit to Sariska in January 2005, which is a reserve closer to Delhi but still in Rajasthan. That trip was a total bust. I didn't realize until after I did some research that there was no chance of it being a success. There were zero tigers in the park (they've since tried to reintroduce the species but I think the count is still in the very low single digits). The only redeeming parts of that trip were (1) spending time with some good friends, (2) staying in Sariska Palace, which was the Maharaja's old tiger hunting lodge, and (3) the fact the guide called out the animals in a very monotone and easily imitated, "sambarrrrr deer", "spot-ted deer", "peacock" (with an accent that sounded more eastern European than Indian); a tradition which I tried to keep alive as we saw the animals of Ranthambhore. It kept me entertained, not so sure what it did for the fellow travelers.

When you're riding around a tiger reserve in a jeep, your mind starts to play tricks on you. Any remotely orange colored shape in the grass becomes a tiger. It's a little like when you're fishing as a child and the slightest movement to your bobber indicates there's a huge fish on your hook. Every time you crest a hill, you envision a tiger walking down the road in front of you. At one point early in the morning, we crested a hill and I saw a moving object with some white fur. My heart rate spiked and I pointed forward. It took a few seconds to realize I was pointing at a spotted deer. I mean, sure it's neat to see a deer that resembles Bambi, but it's not exactly a rare sight in northern India wildlife preserves.
Spotted deer, arguably cuter than a squirrel but just as common
While there was no tiger, there was a highlight to the morning safari. We've seen hundreds of peacocks while in India but had yet to see one imitate the NBC logo. Ironically, we crested a hill and came upon a muster of peacocks (yes, I looked up what a group of peacocks is called and actually found out that "peafowl" is the correct term for the species, a "peacock" is a male, and a "peahen" is a female; for my purposes, I'm going to call them all peacocks). One of the males (for those that don't know, the males are the pretty ones with the long, colorful feathers; whereas, the females aren't nearly as bright and have shorter feathers) had his feathers spread strangely on the ground behind him. Slowly he lifted his feathers into a full plume. As you'd expect with my luck, his back end was facing us.
Just my luck, the back side of a fully plumed peacock
Slowly, he started to turn, strutting and shaking his back end the entire way around. This little dude was obviously trying to impress the females.
In case you ever wondered what the profile of a plumed peacock looks like
Soon enough, we were treated to a fully plumed peacock. Impressive. Not "tiger" impressive but certainly not a bad consolation prize.
This guy was far cooler than Argus on "30 Rock"
As we began to see other vehicles in the park, the drivers and guides would quickly something in Hindi (presumably whether they had any luck) while the passengers in opposite vehicles would give each other that, "did you see one?" look before quickly and solemnly shaking their heads back and forth. It was a sad morning for all in Zone 1 of the park.
Even in a tiger reserve, you'll be asked "tea coffee?"
To try and cheer us up, the guide made a timed coffee stop (the hotel was kind enough to provide a basket with coffee mugs and pastries; not exactly roughing it). The highlight of the stop was the birds that were obviously attracted to the crumbs. One bird in particular hated Lindsay. I can't explain why, but this bird just knew that she was an easy target. It nearly attacked her, which provided at least a little entertainment to some of the others that had stopped and were still quietly hoping to see a tiger.
It's all fun and games....
....until you mock the bird.
Thankfully, we had a second safari planned which ended with far better results, at least as far as wildlife spotting goes; however, the failed morning safari provided more than enough entertainment. It also helped us realize how lucky we were to witness a tiger later that day.

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