Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ranthambhore National Park : The land of Machli

Elephant, Tiger, one horned Rhino, Asiatic Lion, Black Bear and Leopard forms the Big 6 of Indian forests. While you will like to avoid a close encounter with wild Elephants, the biggest of them all, for good reasons, you will be delighted to meet any one of the other five. A visit to Gir will almost certainly ensure a sighting of Lion, so does a visit to Kaziranga for rhino. Bear and leopard are almost everywhere, but very elusive. Tiger can be sighted relatively easily if you are at the right place. The aura of royalty around tiger has made it the most sought after animal in wildlife circuit of India. When a tiger walks, the jungle watches it with baited breath. The atmosphere changes dramatically, as if to pay respect to the king, occasionally punctuated by calls of the frightened deer or langur. The excitement of seeing a tiger in the wild can not be described in words. As part of my photography trips, I feel gratified to witness more than twenty of this magnificent beast in several jungles of India during the last one and half year. People who appreciate my photographs often ask about the place which guarantees a tiger sighting. It should rather be coined as where the possibilities of meeting the king are maximum. One such place is Ranthambhore in Rajasthan. The terrains of Ranthambhore are ideal for tiger sighting.

Male T24
Located just 450km away from, Ranthambhore is easily accessible from Delhi. Nearest railhead and town is Sawai Madhopur on the Delhi – Mumbai line. There are quite a few alternative routes for driving down like via Jaipur or Alwar or Bharatpur. So is the train connectivity. Once I had used Mumbai Rajdhani which landed me there in just 3 ½ hrs. This probably is the most comfortable way to reach Sawai Madhopur. Normally it takes about 6 hrs by train and 8 hrs by road.

My first trip to Ranthambhore came quite late in May 2012. Couple of earlier attempt had to be aborted to due to a highly corrupt system of safari booking. The online booking system has been hacked by local hoteliers and agents in connivance with forest officials. Within hours of opening of booking in Sept, 2011, all gyspy seats till April 2012 got blocked. Official rate for a seat in gyspy is around Rs. 550/- which are then sold for at least 1000 depending on demand. This manipulation was reported even in leading newspapers like with forest deptt assuring to address this issue. Till the time forest deptt wakes up, you either need to become victim or time your visit during off peak period. A large no of canters are also used for safari. Cost of a canter seat is around 400 as against a gypsy seat of 550. Canters are real nuisance to the jungle. Imagine yourself hauled in an open truck on a bumpy road to view wildlife. You can hear them coming from miles away. While a gyspy has only 6 occupants, a canter has a crowd of 20-30. Crowd is for cities, not for game viewing.

This year I decided to beat this manipulation by choosing to visit the park in peak summer. You will bother to venture out at near 50 degree temp only if you seriously love wildlife. Ironically both the summer months of May and June provide good sighting. Therefore these two months are ideal time for photographer. However high the declared density of tiger in a jungle may be, luck plays the final factor in getting to face this majestic beast in his backyard. My honest estimation is to face a tiger once every three outings. I keep one for exploring the terrain and the other for birding. In between, when luck favors, a sighting occurs. A sighting brings such joy to your soul that it gets exuded unknowingly. The faces of tourist coming of tiger territories tell the story point blank. One should not get disappointed if they do not get to see a tiger. A signboard at Bandhavgarh righty says ‘You might not have seen me, but I have seen you’. One should learn to enjoy the landscape, watch the prey base, look for colorful birds and suck in lungful fresh air. If you do this, you will enjoy all your trips to the wild.

male cub Sultan of T19
Ranthambhore is divided into 8 zones. Zone 1 to 5 constitutes the main park area.  Zone 6 to 8 is basically buffer and is best avoided during season. This is why you can easily get safari bookings for these zones. During monsoon (1st July – 30th Sept) the main areas of park remains closed. Zone 6 to 8 remains open even during monsoon. On enquiry I found that most foreign tourist arriving in India during July-October on this circuit are taken for a ride in these zones. You won’t get to see a tiger in those zones and the operators always have the excuse that ‘tiger sighting is a mater of luck’. However you may get to see leopard and bear in these zone. So make sure to book safari for zone 1 to 5.

Once you book online, the zones are also allotted online randomly. For tatkal and current bookings, zones are allotted manually and hence get manipulated. Most regulars to the park know how to manipulate it. The zone you get further decides outcome of your safari. Zone 5 happens to be the worst one. However zone 5 has the finest green area of the jungle called Bhakula. It also provides the some of the best landscape of Ranthambhore. Even if you get to see a tiger in zone 5, it will not be from close. Rest of the zones provides equal chance to see a tiger. I have seen tigers in zone 1 to 4, but none in two trips to zone 5. There are 3 gates – one for zone 4 and 5, another for zone 1. The third gate opposite the fort entrance opens to zone 2 and 3. Zone 3 used to be premium. Most of the landscapes of Ranthambhore you see in Nat Geo / Animal Planet are from this zone. The tigress, who rules the area around Padam Talab, has traditionally been the queen of Ranthambhore. It was once ruled by legendry Machli (T16), and now by her offspring Sundari (T17).

Officially Ranthambhore had about 46 tigers (2011) over an area of roughly 400 sq km. Every year you lose some tiger to poaching, death or migration to other area. You also get new cubs adding to the count every year. T17 and T39 are two tigress who had had given birth this season. Tigers generally live for 15-16 years during which it gives birth around 4-5 times. The prey base at Ranthambhore is good which is why tigers have flourished here. Here you can see herds of Sambhar deer, the favorite prey of tigers. In other parks, Sambhar deer are found in group of 2 or 3. The landscape is generally dry with rocky terrains. There is quite a large no of natural water bodies in the park which had helped in sustaining wildlife. Padam Talab (zone 3) and Malik Talab (zone 4) are two large lakes like water bodies where you can see crocodiles as well.

Besides the zone, the driver and guide also play key roles in tiger sighting. Guide and driver are allotted randomly on a roaster basis. Photographers generally handpick guides by paying a premium officially. I had one drive with Kalim, who happens to be brother of popular guide Salim. Kalim was driver for a Nat Geo shoot in April, 2012. I was impressed with his skill. The bad thing is that once you drive with guy like Kalim, you start comparing others with him. Foreign tourists had pampered these guides and drivers by paying handsome tips. They easily judge the tip paying potential of the tourist they are carrying and conduct the trip accordingly. Depending on probability of tips, the guide and driver will search for tiger at every possible spot. Else they will stick to regular tracks. Contrary to what some may think, tigers do not pop up out of nowhere in the middle of a road during safari. Tigers are to be tracked down reading signs in nature – like pugmarks, calls of animals like cheetal, sambhar or langur. This is where your guide and driver come into play. Tigers generally sleep all through the day and keep moving within its territory all through the night. It is highly active during early hours of morning or late evening when it hunts. The guides and drivers know which tiger frequents which area.

Female T41
Third important factor is your safari companions, specially if you have not booked full gypsy. It is important to travel with like minded people. The people who are traveling in your gypsy can kill your trip. Often people share the gypsy to cut cost. You can hire the entire gyspy by paying for all 6 seats. Hiring a full gyspy will cost you around 4000 per trip. Else you can book as many seats you need. For all my trips I had booked 3 seats. Most of the time my companions were also in group of 3 (small family) and had to be picked from a single resort. But occasionally they were 2+1 meaning they had to be picked from two resorts delaying your entry to the park. Such delay for evening trip is OK as tiger movement starts around sunset. But for morning safari, this delay can be crucial. I had bad companions in 2 out of 9 safaris I took this year. One of them was a couple with a 2-3 yr child. My request to such people is not to go to jungle and spoil others trip. Jungle safaris, where one has to sit absolutely silent at times, is not meant for small kids. Take kids to jungle when they start appreciating it. Imagine how it would be with canter where several groups will have to be picked. Or how other 25 plus would behave when it is difficult to deal with 2 or 3. Patience is another key. Once you track down signs of a tiger, you may have to wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for the tiger to make a move. Therefore a gypsy having a max of 6 people is ideal as you can expect other 5 to be as patient as you.

Ranthambhore offers plenty of options to stay put. Sawai Madhopur landscape is generally dry and hence resorts here are not like the ones you get to see around greener parks like Corbett. This means that the campuses of resorts are not lush green. A double occupancy hotel room (AC) costs about 1000 bucks, while a night at a resort would cost you at least 2500 bucks. Staying at hotels on Ranthambhore road closer to town is not a bad option as it also offers access to local restaurants. The added advantage is that if you stay on first row of hotels on Ranthambhore road, you are likely to be picked first and hence you get seat of your choice. The safari booking office is in the city and hotels are on the 10 odd km road to the park. Further you are away from city, the more is your possibility of being picked last for safari and hence almost no choice of seat. Given the greener surroundings, the RTDC Vinayak is not a bad option for staying, though it is located bit far from the town. If you are staying in a resort, then make sure to bargain for AP rate. Else you will end up coughing a lot for buffet meals.

I had a fantastic first trip in May, 2012. The place I choose to stay was ‘Ranthambhore Bagh’ owned by well known naturalist Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh. Though a bit pricey, it provides a homely environment with excellent staff. I had sighting in 4 out of 5 safaris. The icing was an encounter with Machli, the icon of Ranthambhore. Fell in love with the place so much so that I made a second visit in June. Wiser from the last visit, I could made my second visit cheaper by almost 10K. You gain experience only by travelling. A rough estimate of 12K will give you 4 safaris with two nights stay and meals for a couple, which is quite decent. Add a couple of thousand more a resort stay. In Ranthambhore I have found a destination where I will be coming back again and again. Looking forward for the park to open after monsoon.

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Cholleti Kumar said...

Thanks for sharing the Information about Ranthambhore National Park.

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Monica said...

Very nice post, I felt some same moments at Nagarajole Karnataka. Also nice picture. Thanks for the post.

Swathi Reddy said...

Hi, you written nicely about your journey. i was not having any idea about this place. I am very happy to see your blog.keep sharing more about ur jourines. Know more about India Travel Tips

Multi Boring-Machine said...

Very Beautiful post....i like it....
The way you describe is awesome.
Thanks For visiting Mahre Des.....

Khyati Sharma said...

Mukundra hills Sanctuary is now the 3rd tiger reserve in Rajasthan. Plan rajasthan tour to explore the great wildlife of Rajsthan