Reflections ... in Ranthambore
This national park is more than just about tigers, although the striped beast is undoubtedly its star attraction.
PHOTO: VIJAY MENON
STRIDING MAJESTICALLY FROM THE MIST: For all its appeal, Ranthambore could do with better management.
THE ochre glow of a late winter evening fades into a misty twilight as my overcrowded "safari van" clatters its way towards the forest gate of Ranthambore National Park. It is the end of another dusty ride around the expansive sanctuary but although I've spent two wonderful days roaming around the beautiful forests, its most famous resident has so far proved elusive. To try and liven up the downcast mood, some of my fellow-tourists start reminiscing about more productive quests for an appointment with our eremitic host. Our guide eagerly chips in with his wide repertoire of hair-raising anecdotes, perhaps in an attempt to transmute our disappointment to gratitude! The bantering continues, gathering enthusiasm and imaginativeness with every new narrative until one of the raconteurs starts gesticulating frantically towards the road ahead. Unable to see anything through the hazy veil that has descended all around us, I put down my companion's frenzy to the tall tales he has been subjected to. However, my judgment turns out to be a little premature my torpid eyes eventually wake up to the majestic gait emerging from the mist, which, accompanied by the collective gasp of my fellow-passengers assures me that we are indeed in the presence of that most awesome, yet most elusive, of nature's creations!
Our stupefaction is in complete contrast to the brute's own nonchalance. We gape spellbound as it ambles its way down the trail, its every regal tread an embodiment of power and grace. It is just a few feet away now, turning a few of us more than a little jittery but the beast itself appears least interested in the commotion it has generated a patronising sidelong glance is the only recognition our presence merits, as the lord of the jungle continues his royal march past our humble van into the darkness of the night.
What is it about the tiger that leaves such a powerful imprint on the human imagination? Is it the fear that this supreme predator evokes or the courage that it inspires? The outrageous beauty of its colours and stripes? The sheer perfection of its design? The elegance of that stride? The searing intensity of those eyes?
Whatever the cause, the effect itself is beyond dispute and the droves of tourists who descend on Ranthambore every year provide as cogent a testimony to it as the words of William Blake.
Blend of history and nature
But Ranthambore is more than just about tigers, although the striped beast is undoubtedly its star attraction. Spread across about 1,300 square kilometres in Eastern Rajasthan, the park is among India's largest tracts of bush forest and for that reason, a unique habitat for the Bengal tiger, which is more typically found in the denser dry deciduous forests of Central and Southern India. Another novelty is the 1,000-year old fort, which winds around central parts of the reserve, seasoning the tourist's already overflowing plate with some history and culture this is, after all, Rajasthan!
The sandstone fort encompasses about 70 sq.km and boasts of hoary lineage that dates back to Prithviraj Chauhan, whose grandson, Govind, is said to have been its first occupant. The fort's strategic location and soaring walls helped it repulse an impressive list of invaders including Alauddin Khilji, Qutb-ud-Din Aibak and Feroze Tughlaq before succumbing to the Mughals in the 1500s who, in turn passed it on to the Maharaja of Jaipur in the 17th-Century.
Ranthambore was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1955 and was also one of the original Project Tiger reserves. The mammalian diversity of the park mirrors its significance as a premier conservation site apart from its flagship attraction, the forest is home to the leopard, the sloth bear, the jackal and the hyena among the carnivores, besides a wide variety of ungulates, the most prominent of which are the Nilgai (Blue Bull) and the majestic Sambhar. Ornithologists have no cause for complaint either the sanctuary's woods and lakes shelter over 250 species of birds, making it an important bird sanctuary in its own right. Easily the most visible of these, is the plucky Rufous Treepie, which is famous for its catwalks on the top of safari vans, strutting its brilliant plumage of black, saffron and white to cheer up tourists who've had no luck with the sanctuary's more famous attractions! Other fascinating water-birds such as the Painted Stork and the Purple Heron can be seen in large numbers along Ranthambore's many lakes and water-bodies. The Crested Serpent Eagle and the Fishing Eagle are among the raptors that top off the avian hierarchy.
The resplendent diversity of the park's flora and fauna is reason enough for its popularity but what really makes Ranthambore stand out from comparable wildlife destination is the convenience of its location (six hours by road from Delhi and about 15 hours from Mumbai) and the "friendly" reputation of its typically reclusive inhabitants. In fact, tigers in Ranthambore are so used to human presence that safari parties are often treated to hunting demonstrations in broad daylight among the eye-witness accounts that have been immortalised in the local folklore is that of a tiger and a crocodile playing tug of war with a hapless Sambhar! The gruesome spectacle was even captured on video, copies of which are now aggressively peddled in Ranthambore's souvenir shops with imaginative titles such as "Tiger versus Crocodile" "Clash of the Titans", etc. Who needs National Geographic?"
In the wilderness
However, for all its attractions, Ranthambore could do with better management. Getting a seat on a safari involves figuring out a labyrinthine racket that leaves many an "unenterprising" tourist stranded at the forest gate. The safari itself is far from a lesson in sensitive tourism. Tourists are ferried across the jungle in a raucous "Canter", which is a minivan relieved of its top and hollowed out to fit in about 25 passengers. This is usually the perfect recipe for triangular contests among its inhabitants, with the hassled guide mediating heated, but poorly informed, discussions on the best strategy to spot a tiger. The guides themselves lack both enthusiasm and knowledge on many trips, it is, in fact, hard to figure out whom the guide might be! The park authorities could draw many useful lessons here from organisations such as Jungle Lodges of Karnataka, which has emerged as a pioneer of responsible eco-tourism in the country.
Apart from tourist conveniences which, perhaps, ought not to be allowed to hijack the management agenda in a National Park, the sanctuary also appears to be facing some grave threats to conservation. Several poaching incidents are believed to have occurred over the years although the Park authorities do not appear very comfortable, discussing them. The locals are more forthcoming with the details and also claim that the official census of 1999, which put the tiger population at about 45, is a significant overestimate. A particularly distressing signal of the Park's state of affairs is the disappearance of Bambooram, the tiger which made headlines after having been spotted by President Clinton ... Alarming portents for what was once considered to be a role model of conservation.
Nevertheless, while concerns remain, Ranthambore continues to be a compelling destination. Tourists to Rajasthan find Ranthambore a good break from the monotony of the State's never-ending forts and the Park's convenient location near Sawai Madhopur on the Mumbai-Delhi railway line, appeals to weekend visitors as well. The relentless construction of hotels all along the Ranthambore road is just one indication of the steady northward movement of tourist arrivals.
While Ranthambore is not exactly an advertisement for eco-friendly tourism, the ever-increasing visitors do check the local population from falling prey to the easy temptations of the animal parts trade. Most of them now agree that tourism offers a steadier income over the long run than the short-term gains of catering to the poaching racket.
Besides, the messages of conservation and protection seem to have hit home, generating an awareness, and even some pride, of how crucial a role they play in the preservation of their endangered mascot.
More than anything else, it is this popular sentiment that breeds the hope that Ranthambore's beleaguered beasts will survive the hunter's rapaciousness as well as the tourist's indiscretion.
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Ranthambore is about half an hour by road from Sawai Madhipur on the Mumbai Delhi Railway line. Jaipur is the closest airport (above five hours).
Safari trips are usually arranged by hotels in Ranthambore in either a Canter or a Gypsy. A Gypsy (jeep) is less intrusive but difficult to find and more expensive. Spend some time inquiring around the forest gate.
Accommodation to suit all budgets is available at Ranthambore. Book ahead during the season (November to March).
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