The Aircel campaign to save the tiger has been so successful that 1,411—the tiny print at the bottom of the ad says it’s a government approximation—has become the most quoted doom statistic of recent times. (We now know that glaciers will NOT melt in 35 years.) But after going on a safari to Ranthambhore national park, I think the more we’re told about the decreasing tiger population, the more we’re instigated to harass the animal.
Ranthambhore has within 300 sq. km. more than 35 different kinds of birds and over 17 different species of animals, but it’s unlikely that anyone will point any of that out to you because the park is a vortex of tiger frenzy. Officially, Ranthambhore has 40-odd tigers, but guides say they haven't seen more than 15.
All safaris are preceded by one prayer: god, show me a tiger. Our guide told me that I should cross my fingers, every hotel guest asked every other hotel guest if they’d seen one, some even went for a safari twice a day three days in a row to see the animal over and over again. Between 6.30 am and 6 pm there is no restriction in the number of vehicles or people who troop in and out of Ranthambhore, either for safaris, visit the fort, or its religious sites. If you're persuasive enough security guards will even open the gates after 6 pm.
I set out with nine other guests from our hotel in a Maruti camper at 6.30 am on Sunday. (Mornings are considered best because that’s when tigers come out to drink.) Ranthambhore is divided into various sections, and according to our guide, section 3—not distinguishable to visitors in any particular way—was the most promising. Apparently several other people had the same idea because ours was one of a party of 10 campers, with at least 40 people on board, chasing sighting rumours. Officials insist that vehicles stay on a restricted path, but one policeman-driven jeep broke the line and drove into the forest for better views.
Our guide told us we should hope to see T-17, well known as the friendliest tiger in Ranthambhore. She is three years old, pregnant with her first litter and, by all accounts, completely anesthetised to human presence. It took under half an hour to confirm most of those facts. T-17 came out of a tiny patch of trees above a mound, clearly headed for a lake downhill. Between her and her objective, stood us the camper-laden paparazzi. She stopped for a few seconds, considered the people and vehicles in front of her then, seemingly resigned to the facts of life, she rambled downward, crossed between two vehicles, and went into a thick brush of tiger grass.
The whole sighting took less than five minutes. We then spent about an hour guarding the grass, waiting for T-17 to jump out at some deer near the water. She never did, of course. I was secretly thankful because despite the exhilaration of seeing her up close, it was difficult to ignore the feeling that we were intruding into a space that was not meant for us. A safari is a wonderful experience if you can see animals in their natural habitat, behaving routinely. There’s nothing natural about a wild tiger unfazed by the presence of 40-50 people in between her and her breakfast. Our guide told us that T-17 had grown up with this kind of attention. Since forest officials do not control the number of vehicles allowed entry into the park at any one time, animals living in unrestricted portions of Ranthambhore are inevitably inundated with flashlights and noises.
People who’ve been on African safaris describe entirely different procedures, which required them to remain silent in the presence of animals, without cellphones, even wear camouflage-coloured clothes. And parks disallow more than one vehicle near an animal sighting.
The best safari anecdote I heard in Ranthambhore sort of turned the idea on its head. In 2009, the lakes in the park were so dry after a bad monsoon that a five-star near one of Ranthambhore’s boundary walls got a group of unlikely guests one winter night: a tigress and three cubs. A guard discovered the family lapping water at the hotel’s step-well. They were apparently so comfortable there they came and went for three days, drinking from the pool, sometimes sleeping within the property’s extensive wild tree cover. I can’t help but call that a people safari.