Once the hunting grounds of maharajas, Ranthambore National Park is now a sanctuary for the majestic Bengal tigers. The number of wild tigers has miraculously increased over time, making it one of India’s favorite spots to see the rulers of the jungle.
“Welcome to my office!”, Soulin proudly said as we passed through the entrance of Ranthambore National Park. An expert in animal behavior and tracking, he accompanied me on my first jungle drive in India, together with a driver and a guide. We were among the first to enter the park. The air is still fresh and morning dews were visible on the lush landscape.
I remember waking up at 5:00 AM to prepare for this jungle drive. After a quick breakfast, I headed out and found Soulin and the team were already waiting for me with a four-wheel jeep (gypsy). Around 20 minutes later, we arrived at Zone 3 which is considered the most scenic as it boasts a fantastic mix of lakes, hills, and historic monuments. It’s also among the oldest areas, hence features a wide variety of flora and fauna. Previously, a private jungle safari like this might have access to all 10 visitable zones. But since the summer of 2022, the park authorities have limited the drive to just one specific zone to safeguard the tigers.
Ranthambore National Park
Ranthambore National Park is one of the largest and most renowned wildlife reserves in Northern India. It is located about 130 kilometers southeast of Jaipur, the famous Pink City. The park takes its name from the monumental 10th-century Ranthambore Fort, now a UNESCO Heritage Site, which stands atop an isolated plateau. Revolving around it are crocodile-infested lakes, temple ruins, and hunting lodges. All look otherworldly, as vines and roots strangulate the crumbling walls and towers.
Though designed as the royal hunting grounds, Ranthambore is now a sanctuary for the charismatic Bengal tigers. Since its establishment in 1980, the park has gained worldwide popularity for its ever-increasing number of wild tigers. An estimated 80 individuals are roaming freely in an area of over 1,700 km², many of which are cubs. They are nonchalant and impervious to the appearance of humans, jeeps, or camera shutters. Aside from the tigers, the park provides a habitat for sambar deers, antelopes, sloth bears, leopards, and over 320 bird species.
The Jungle Drive
The national park after the monsoon season was brimming with life. We first drove along the shore of Rajbagh Lake – the perfect spot for bird watchers, before going deeper into the dry forest. Antelopes, wild boars, and sambar deer appeared in front of our eyes. They barely cared about our appearance and kept grazing on the grass or leaves. Our gypsy then climbed to the hills, passing by raw bushland. From there, greenery stretched as far as my eyes could see. I noticed various shades of green, from the dark green of dhok trees to the bright yellow-green of vetiver grass. With Soulin’s help, I could also spot a falcon soaring over the sky and a couple of owls sleeping in the tree trunks.
Ranthambore after the monsoon season was brimming with life.
As we drove around, we kept our ears tuned for the monkey alarm or the sambar deer barking as a warning of an approaching tiger. The preys are well organized in communicating the predator’s arrival. Yet despite some warning sounds, no tigers were in sight. I expected this as we visited the park in October, and there was ample vegetation for them to hide in. Food and water were also everywhere so the chance to spot one was slim. After about 90 minutes, a tiger was reportedly detected near Rajbagh Lake. We rushed there but still saw nothing. We circled the lake and I had the chance to observe the atmospheric Rajbagh Palace that seems floating over the water. Once a Mahara’s hunting lodge, it is now embraced by nature.
Suddenly, Soulin shouted out: “It’s over there! Under the tree right at the water’s edge”. We all followed his gaze across the lake. There, in the shadow of a dhok tree lay a majestic Bengal tiger. It seemed extremely relaxing with the eyes half-closed. The tiger was about a few hundred meters away, thus my naturalist could not identify whether it was a male or female. Though I didn’t have a close-up photo of the tiger, seeing them fit and chilling like this was more than enough.
Tips for visiting Ranthambore
- Sawai Madhopur is the closest town to Ranthambore. Trains from Jaipur stop at this station several times per day. And the journey takes approximately two hours. Most hotels in the area offer pick-up from this station. A private vehicle is a great alternative, but it’s not faster than taking the train.
- Currently, two types of vehicles are running inside the national park: the gypsy (4 people) and the canter (20 people). The former offers flexibility and comfort, while the latter is more affordable.
- A jungle drive usually takes three to four hours. The morning drive starts at 6:30, while the afternoon drive starts at 14:30. Please note that tiger watching is a game of luck, especially in the last months of the year. So don’t get your hope high, otherwise, you might be disappointed.
- The end of the dry season (March, April, and May) is a better time to see the tigers because there are no more bushes to hide in. And water is limited to a handful of locations. However, the weather can be scorching hot.
- Though the tigers are the main attractions at Ranthambore, the landscape, the monuments, and other wildlife deserve attention.