| Bernhard Krieger |
Ranthambhore, India (dpa) – It’s an encounter of a special kind. But, trying to get a glimpse of a tiger in India’s jungles requires a lot of patience … and a bit of luck.
It’s not the same easy game as getting to photograph lions in the savannah of Africa.
For all that, a tiger safari in the famous Ranthambhore National Park promises a genuine adventure.
What was once the hunting domain of the maharajah is the best-known of India’s 53 tiger reservations. Currently, 50 of the majestic cats inhabit the some 400-square-kilometre park in the eastern part of the state of Rajasthan.
Protected against poachers by park rangers, the animals – not at all shy of humans – can be viewed and photographed in a setting worthy of a film on the big screen.
In this idyllic setting, travellers must be patient to obtain that opportunity.
It take more than three hours to drive the 150 kilometres from Jaipur airport to the national park. In India, however, the journey is part of the experience, learning about a country of so many contrasts.
The palaces of the maharajahs, now turned into top-flight hotels, are among the most luxurious anywhere in the world. There are also new-built, top-class hotels to relax in all around Ranthambhore National Park.
Unlike in Africa, the hotels cannot offer privileged access to the tiger reserve or send you out with a naturalist in their own employ. in the tiger reserve, the backpack traveller’s money counts the same as that of a tourist staying at a luxury hotel.
Early in the morning, all the safari participants are picked up at their accommodation around the national park.
For most, the transportation is a big open truck, with simple benches for around 20 passengers, whose eyes will soon be burning from the dust churned up by the four-wheel-drive vehicles. The trip to the park entrance, counting stops at other hotels, can take up to an hour.
Riding through the jungle at dawn, some guests are surprised – and feeling very chilled – by the low temperatures.
But the reward will soon be forthcoming, with the first rays of the morning sunshine revealing an overwhelmingly beautiful landscape.
At the reserve entrance, a park ranger is assigned by lot to each vehicle, including the more comfortable, smaller Mahindra and Maruti off-roaders.
Once the ranger is on board, the roughly three-hour drive through the park finally gets under way. A few deer and many peacocks can also be seen. Occasionally the ranger will point to a deer, quipping that it is “tiger food”, but otherwise he remains silent.
Over and again, the jeep will come to a halt and the ranger will listen intently to the jungle. No tell-tale sounds are to be heard, like the cracking of a branch or the warning shrieks of monkeys or birds, or the pounding hoofs of deer in flight that might indicate a tiger. Today, in this sector of the park, there are none.
“No tiger,” the ranger curtly sums up the situation. How very true.
It is thanks to the Indian government that there are still any tigers at all left in Rathambhore Park. It was declared a protected area for tigers in 1973, and poaching was finally put to a stop in the 1990s.
The tigers in the park have all been photographed and registered by number. Some have even been given names.
The most famous of the big cats is Machali, who has given birth to nine cubs and is even a film star. The “Queen of Rathambhore” has gained world renown because she has killed more than a dozen three-metre-long crocodiles on the shores of a lake.
On this morning’s safari, neither she nor any of her fellow-tigers are to be seen. And there is nothing for the travellers to photograph in the afternoon, either. The ranger has fallen completely silent.
The next day, a more communicative ranger named Mazhar Khan joins the group. He is a young man who knows everything about the tigers and the other animals in the park, ranging from the leopards to the more than 260 species of birds. With him, every minute of the safari is fun.
The four hours in the off-roader go quickly by. And then, the long-awaited moment arrives: a tiger actually comes into view.
It is, the ranger informs the group, T 24, a tiger that has already killed three humans.
“They were people from the villages who broke into the park to collect firewood. It wasn’t the tiger’s fault,” Khan whispers reassuringly. He tells the guests that as long as everyone makes no sudden move as they stand up to take pictures from the off-roader, there is no danger.
Neither he nor the driver carry any weapon.
Carefully, Khan has the driver bring the truck up to within a few metres of the huge cat. Ustad – that is T 24’s nickname – is in fact totally relaxed and is apparently used to the vehicle and its humans.
The safari trucks approach too, but when a fourth vehicle gets near, the tiger gets up with a growl.
He’s starting to feel crowded. So he leaves – gracefully, majestically and so overpoweringly grand that the travellers have forgotten all the discomforts it took to arrive at this moment.