A Fruitless Search for Tigers

Ranthambhore Scenery

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 spotted deer, or chital,

A spotted deer, or chital.

The sambar deer is the largest species of deer in India.

The sambar deer is the largest species of deer in India.

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.

A nilgai, or blue bull.

A nilgai, or blue bull.

A chinkara, or Indian gazelle.

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.

Okay, the fort is pretty cool. But it doesn't make up for the park's other flaws.

Okay, so the fort is pretty cool. But it still doesn’t make up for the park’s other flaws.

Sometimes the monkeys get grumpy.

Sometimes, the monkeys get grumpy.

An inspirational message at Ranthambhore Fort.

An inspirational message at Ranthambhore Fort.

Some deep wisdom from the fort signage.

Some deep wisdom from Indian archaeologists.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “A Fruitless Search for Tigers

  1. Wow, what a frustrating experience. The fort does look really cool though!

  2. Stephen Paul

    Yes, doubtlessly not the experience you were looking for, in the least. But, the blue bull looked unique. And, you continued your photography of primates and probably avoided drowning, thanks to the sign.

  3. Safaris into the jungle can be booked online, although most of the seats have been booked by hotels which then sell them at a higher price to their guests. However, there’s very little you can do about this kind of corruption other than play along, or give up on the plan altogether.
    But if you do manage to get a booking and get into the jungle, it’s well worth it. Unfortunately, you got the routes that aren’t exactly ideal both times. But even so, if you’ve gone to Ranthambhore to see the jungle and ALL it’s residents, and not JUST the tiger, it would still be worth it.
    I’m pretty sure if you love wildlife, as you say you do, even the jungle minus the tiger is a treat. After all, there’s not very many places you would have seen the other species you did- the gazelle, nilgai etc.
    I’ve been to Ranthambhore innumerable times, doing at least 4 trips to the jungle every time and it’s never let me down. I’ve had times where I’ve seen 5 tigers in a single safari in the jungle- basically 5 in 3 hours- including a tigress transferring her cubs from one place to another by carrying them in her mouth.
    Even if I didn’t see a tiger in the forest on one day I would be delighted with the birds and other animals that I did see. It’s just a matter of loving wildlife, taking things as they come, and being patient.
    Tiger tracking, which you say was a part of your trip, is half the fun in a forest like Ranthambhore where they don’t attach radio collars or anything just to satisfy tourists. Since the landscape isn’t barren, you have to actually SEARCH for the tiger. You’ve seen pugmarks, so obviously you were halfway there. Maybe next time you can plan from before and go the distance!
    Hope the rest of your experience in India is better!

    • bensoltoff

      Sakshi, thanks for sharing your perspective on Ranthambhore. I’m glad that it has instilled in you what the American national parks have instilled in me—a sense of inspiring wonder about nature. I fully understand the inherent appeal of tracking tigers, even if the effort is unsuccessful, and I appreciate the opportunity to observe the forest scenery and the other wildlife (although, for the record, I should note that I see nilgai and chinkara fairly often during my field work in the Thar Desert). However, I just can’t get past the corruption. I can’t “play along” without it souring the rest of the experience. I think we can both agree that poor management detracts from people’s enjoyment of a beautiful place in unfortunate and sometimes disappointing ways.

      • That is true.
        I understand where you’re coming from as far as the corruption bit goes. Your first impression itself was so bad it would be tough to enjoy the rest of the trip.
        As far as the wildlife part goes, I was referring not only to deers but also other animals (sloth bear, leopards, jungle cats), birds, reptlies etc. that you’ll get to see if you have a good guide.
        I really do suggest you give Ranthambhore another chance, in the summer maybe. Stay overnight, do 3 or 4 trips into the jungle. Go through a hotel to book your safari. Let it redeem itself maybe. It’s really worth it. 🙂

      • bensoltoff

        Thanks for the advice. If not Ranthambhore, I’ll definitely visit another Indian national park while I’m here.

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