Observing a tiger in the wild is a breathtaking and unforgettable experience. Or at least I presume it is, because I haven’t actually seen one, despite traveling seven hours by train to visit a tiger reserve and embarking on two somewhat expensive safaris. I didn’t mind not seeing any big cats during the trip—they’re wild animals and shouldn’t be displayed like circus attractions—but what bothered me was the disorganized and corrupt management of Ranthambhore National Park.
The trouble started at the booking office. Because my friends and I planned the trip too late to book a safari online, we had to arrange it in person, just before the vehicle was supposed to leave. Fresh off the train, we entered into a madhouse. Any long line in India tends to be somewhat chaotic, and this was no exception. Groups of men shoved and shouted, trying to make their way to the barred ticket windows at the front. There were two lines, or more accurately, two disorderly masses of people. One crowd was waiting for vehicles called Gypsies, which are jeeps that seat six people, and the other was waiting for vehicles called Canters, which are large trucks that seat 15 or 20 people. When we got to the front of the Gypsy line, we learned they were sold out, and had to go all the way to the back of the other line.
After we finally got the booking, the Canter took us to a part of the park called Zone 6. Ranthambhore is split into eight sections, with Zones 1 to 5 comprising the core areas and Zones 6 to 8 forming the buffer regions around them. As we soon learned, there’s not much hope of spotting a tiger in the buffer regions. Zone 6 was not far from the city of Sawai Madhopur, and the terrain was full of scraggly trees and scrubby grass, clearly not the heart of the jungle. The zone had a few varieties deer and antelope but not much else. And most of the passengers on the Canter were rowdy teenagers, more interested in comparing their cell phones and harassing the park ranger than observing the wildlife around them.
The next morning, we were dead set on getting a better zone. We returned to the booking office at 5 AM, two hours before the morning safari. The sun hadn’t even begun to rise, but a long line had already formed. At least it was somewhat subdued compared to the day before, tamed with a sense of pre-dawn fatigue. Hedging our bets, we split up between the Canter line and the Gyspy line. This time would be different. We knew the system. We knew the zones. We had a plan. But it wasn’t enough. Just before the tickets went on sale, another line formed at the Gypsy window, full of single men with stacks of pink reservation forms. I asked a park official what this line was.
“VIP,” he said.
It took another few minutes to figure out what “VIP” meant. The men in that line were travel agents, booking safaris for wealthy, usually foreign tourists. According to park regulations, safaris have to be booked in person, but this is India; with a few bribes to the right people, regulations hardly matter. That’s why we were the only foreigners at the booking office. When we finally reached the front of the line, the core areas were long gone. Only Zone 8 was left. Grudgingly, we accepted it. But the man at the window still wouldn’t make the sale.
“You need to pay for six people,” he said. “To fill the Gypsy.”
Our group was only four. This additional nonsense, on top of everything else, resulted in a long argument, involving curses, shouting, and accusations of corruption. Eventually, we joined with a group of seven to share two vehicles and paid the Indian price on the last seat, rather than the much steeper foreigner price. It was the best deal we could get.
The second safari was more exciting than the first. On the way to Zone 8, the driver got wind of a tiger sighting in the area and sped along the dirt roads to get us there, past scattered houses and expansive green fields. The reported sighting could well have been a fake, a ploy to stir up false hope, but I didn’t mind. The place felt like a tiger could have been prowling about. There was even a solitary print on the road. But in the end, we saw only deer and antelope.
To some degree, Ranthambhore’s system makes sense. Tigers are highly endangered, with less than 2,000 in the wild, and they face a pervasive threat from poaching. In 2012, poachers killed more than 50 tigers, including one in a zoo. In order to get a handle on illegal activity, the government needs to limit and track vehicles in the core areas, and it needs a centralized booking office for arranging safaris. However, the system should be fair. Along with my group, many Indian tourists got stuck in sub-par zones. Why should wealthy foreigners get premier access to an Indian park? And if park officials can succumb to bribes from tourist agents, can’t they just as easily do the same with poachers?
I left Ranthambhore feeling disappointed, and I wouldn’t have felt much better if I had seen a tiger. As the only Indian national park I’ve visited, it gave me a terrible first impression. The American national parks are some of my favorite places in the world, with their stirring landscapes and iconic scenery, but Ranthambhore has none of that majesty or grandeur. It’s all tourist traps and tiger mania. There’s an impressive fort rising from the forest, but the only natural attraction is the tiger population, which includes just a few dozen animals. While tigers are skillful predators, the park’s dominant species is something much more common in India—relentless corruption and bureaucracy. Other than the jungle setting, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.