Tuesday, June 26th, 2012. Ranthambhore, Rajasthan, India.

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I have a confession.  Tigers are my favorite animal.  From a very young age I would marvel at them in the zoo and was awed by the power, their grace, and their majesty.  Seeing one in the wild was a goal that I’d pretty much forgotten about since the chances were so remote.

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A few months ago, as we were planning the trip, I asked the boys and Kelly what were some of their favorite travel memories.  Animal encounters were at the top of the list.  We’ve been very fortunate to swim with seals in the Galapagos, see elephants, giraffe, lions, rhinos and more in Africa, play with cheetahs in Namibia, handle pandas in China, see wild platypus in Australia, stroke jaguar and other wild cats in Belize, dive with sharks and other aquatic creatures in various oceans and more.

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Tigers are incredibly endangered.  They have become extinct in many of their former ranges and the total Indian population is now only around 2,000 to 3,000.  Tigers are territorial animals and need a very large range.  For example, Ranthambhore park is more than 400 square KM and probably has as many as 40 tigers, yet this isn’t enough space for them.

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The park’s history is interesting.  As previously mentioned, there has been a settlement here for at least 1,000 years.  The fort is the second largest in India. Twice it was attached by the Muslims.  First, unsuccessfully  by Alaudin Khalji (the same dude who caused so much trouble by looking at the princess’s reflection) in the early 14th century. 

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Then Akbar defeated the Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawain in the mid 16th Century.  Eventually Akbar would give his daughter in marriage to the Jaipur Maharaja and as part of her dowry, they were given all the land of Rajasthan. Ranthambhore became their private hunting domain.  After independence conservation began in earnest in the 1960s and by 1973 a reserve was started.  The park officially opened around 1984 and in the 70s and 80s twenty two villages were relocated from Ranthambhore to establish the current reserve.

Inside the park there remain several temples, memorials, etc. and locals are seen daily walking to visit these.

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We booked two game drives – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  These are conducted on Indian jeeps kitted out to support eight people – a driver and guide in front and six passengers on elevated seats in the back.  Slightly less expensive game drives are available on large open trucks. We ended up doing our two drives with the same couple of American guys from another nearby hotel.

There are five different zones for games drives in the park, since it is so large, and it keeps the various vehicles to a manageable level in each zone.  The character of each zone is different and there is the possibility of seeing seeing a tiger in any of them. It is all hit and miss.  For instance, people staying at our lodge yesterday got to see one in the morning and two in the afternoon.  People we met earlier on our trip saw none.  A very serious amateur photographer (that’s what you call someone with a $10,000 lens who takes great photos for fun!) told me he came last year and did nine game drives and saw no tigers.  I’m guessing that the photos  this other person took with their iPad (at more than 50 meters away) probably didn’t come out as good.

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Each jeep on each game drive has its assigned zone and the vehicle is supposed to stay in that zone only.  You cannot leave the jeep and the jeeps have to stay on the tracks. 

Traveling off season has some benefits.  The park closes at the start of July for three months as this is the beginning of the monsoon season.  So at the end of June, it is very hot, and dry and there isn’t as much vegetation cover, making it harder for the tigers to hunt and stressing them.  All of this makes the chances of seeing a tiger much greater at this time of year.

For our morning drive, the jeep arrived about 20 minutes after the other jeeps from our hotel had left, then had to pick up the other party, so we ended up entering the park 30 mins after it opened.  Our zone was 5, and we saw lots of animals, but no tigers.  The closest we got was to see a fresh paw print in 2.5 hours of searching.  Our guide spoke to the drivers of other jeeps in Hindi towards the end of our drive and told us that no one had seen any tigers.

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Oh well, back to the hotel for breakfast, a nap, then some lunch before being picked up in the late afternoon to try again. Our afternoon guide asked us if we had done a previous drive and if we had seen a tiger.  We said we had been on a morning drive in zone 5, but no, we had not seen any tigers. He was very surprised.  Our afternoon driver had been on 5 in the morning and said his and at least three other vehicles had seen a tiger around 8:30.  So (assuming he was being honest!), our morning driver had lied to us, and the fact that we started 30 minutes after opening probably did make a difference.

We were on drive 2 in the afternoon, and it shares its beginning with drive 3.  Just as the two drives branch off, there were a few vehicles on the drive 3 route stopped, so we joined them and immediately saw a female tiger relaxing by the water.  It was magnificent.  One of those really awe inspiring moments.

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Unfortunately having to deal with the foliage and the limited positioning of the vehicle, it is tough to get really great photos.  We stayed  a while and tried a few other spots hoping she might wander over to us, but she did not.  We saw lots of birds and other animals on the rest of our drive.  There was even a report of a 2nd tiger and a cub.  She had apparently roared, which is a warning to stay away from her offspring, but she never reappeared.

As we exited the park we got to see the same tigress as before in a different location, this time near a kill she had made earlier in the day of a sambal, the largest kind of deer in the park.  The “serious photographer” got some great shots of her earlier in the day which he showed me at dinner. He said she had wolfed down some 50Kg of meat in just a short while.  By the time we saw her near the carcass in the late afternoon, there was only a portion of the deer remaining and she was mostly content to sit and lick her paws. 

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Sitting about 30 feet away from a wild tiger definitely ranks as a highlight of our trip and I suspect will be another of our favorite travel memories.

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