Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tiger Safari - Success!

Ranthambhore National Park is hot in May. It's also one of the best months for sighting tigers. As a result, the 111 degree high temperature wasn't nearly enough to keep us out of the park for an afternoon safari.

The park is divided into different zones to which your jeep gets assigned. Our guide, Yad, found a way to get us moved from Zone 1, where we had been in the morning with no luck and had no interest in returning, to Zone 4 where a tiger had been spotted earlier in the day crawling into a cave; a cave adjacent to one of the roads deep in the zone. After 40 minutes of driving, while I still expected to see a tiger walking down the road with each hill we crested, we approached three jeeps from behind. Still not sure exactly why the jeeps were stopped (we hadn't been told of the cave), a boy in one of the jeeps said (in Hindi and translated by our friend Swata), "Shhhh, the tiger is sleeping." I thought it was just a cute kid with an overactive imagination.

Additional jeeps began to show. Since my tiger spotting can best described as "limited" (i.e., one failed safari in the morning), I finally started to realize this was a good sign. It was an even better sign that the driver and guide each pulled out binoculars and started scanning the cave. Shortly after, Yad pointed toward a spot just below a tree that crossed the cave entrance. Something was moving. Something big. Something with orange and white fur. Jackpot.
Can you spot him?
By this time, six or seven or some number of jeeps had gathered. Getting an accurate count seemed secondary, what with a 400+ pound cat nearby. A cat that realized he had an audience. An audience he had no intention of granting immediate gratification. He moved around a bit, inched closer to the opening, and even gave a couple of good roars (which our guide could easily replicate), but we had no idea when or if he would leave the cave. The guides all seemed confident he would. Again, as a tiger spotting novice, I had no room to argue.
He starts to move and stupid me thought this was the best shot I'd get
Thirty minutes after our arrival, the tiger stood and slowly started walking down from his perched cave. There were two watering holes in opposite directions. Since the jeeps were blocking its way to one, it opted for one a little further away and began its slow march through the jungle. The guides, having seen this path before, knew exactly where to go. The chase was on.

The seven or eight jeeps had created a very proper Indian traffic jam with vehicles pointed in all directions. We maneuvered around a couple and still found ourselves head on with another vehicle but on the main trail. The driver of the other vehicle expertly reversed himself for some time as we chased him, hood to hood.
My 55-200mm zoom wasn't quite the fanciest lens in the park
We drove around toward a watering hole in hopes of his impending arrival. The impending arrival was later than expected. Seeing the crowd of vehicles, it took its place laying in the grass, probably 100 meters away.

After some time, our driver moved us from the current "prime" viewing spot and positioned us pointed out where we could easily drive one of two directions. He was also strategically positioned so that other jeeps couldn't jockey in front of us. We waited there for a while before it became obvious that the tiger was on the move. It was actually moving directly toward where we previously had been so the driver somehow found his way back to a perfect position. The cat was walking straight at us.
Just a bit of an adrenaline rush
As the tiger began to move, again the driver got the jeep moving, placing us in position for the next great spot. Again, there was a serious traffic jam as each of the jeeps tried to get in the best position. Fortunately, we were perfectly placed and had a great view as the tiger walked past. At one point, it was no further than five meters from our jeep. It was such a rush to see a tiger at that range that at no point did I think to myself, "oh crap, I have no idea what this cat is thinking and it could literally pounce into one of these jeeps for a quick and easy meal."

From the time the tiger left the brush and slowly walked past the watering hole and eager audience, it was about ten minutes in elapsed time, a detail I had to go back to the photo timestamps to confirm. My only regret during the entire experience was that I spent a majority of my time clicking away on the camera and less time just simply admiring the animal.

It's amazing how effective a tigers coloring is as camouflage, whether in brush or on rocks. If we hadn't seen the tiger walking into an area, there's no way we would have ever seen it at distance. Physically, other than its camouflage, it's sheer size stood out. The paws were enormous, it's head was enormous. The whole cat was just enormous, and you needed the context of the jungle to understand exactly how large it was. Other than its physical characteristics, it walked around the jungle with a "it's fine if you want to watch me, but I'm going to pretty much do what I want, when I want, and you'll be happy when you see me" kind of attitudes. There was no mistake. The tiger was in charge.

While I'm always a fan of any trip into a wildlife preserve or national park, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have been disappointed without a tiger sighting. Though with only 31 adult tigers and 14-16 cubs in a park that is only a couple hundred square miles, we were extremely fortunate to see one in the wild. Truly one of my most memorable experiences in India.


  1. THAT is cool!! much better than our experience in a tiger preserve (in 120 degree temps, with crabby kids and no water .. and NO tigers!) ....

    Truly truly amazing !! So glad you guys got to see this ....makes me want to try again!

  2. We were definitely very lucky, but seeing one wants to make us try again

    At the park they were saying there's a 70-80% success rate at this time of year, but I have to doubt that's the case. There just aren't that many of them over such a huge area.

  3. I know the ambivalence you feel re being in the moment vs. capturing it on camera. However, if you'd spent most of your time admiring the tiger rather than filming it, you'd have a nice memory and would have forgotten the details within minutes. Now you have something you can look at in depth over and over again for the rest of your life. Really great shots!

  4. Mariemcc, even in the short two weeks of reflection since this event, I must admit. I agree with you entirely!