Landscape with trees and escarpments
Animals,  Birds,  Rajasthan,  Sunday Stills

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright …

Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with ‘Did you see any tigers?’ The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees …

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

Ranthambore National Park

We visited the national park on the tail end of our driving tour of Rajasthan. Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, the park itself is beautiful in places. It was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.

Lake with palm trees and others
A lake in the park

Ranthambore lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. It is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi; from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar; before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century. Hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this. And Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee; we saw many on our way into the park.

Visiting the park

The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences; it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, early morning and late afternoon. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid extra for a private safari.

There are two types of vehicle used: open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide; and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours about three months before our visit. But even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.

Map with images of tiger and other animals
Tourism zones sign by the entrance

The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is potluck whether you get a ‘good’ zone or otherwise. This hasn’t however prevented loads of online discussion about which is ‘best’. But in practice there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them. And a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.

You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay; however with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close-to-guaranteed chance of seeing tigers; but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.

Our first drive

We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger. And as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.

For a while it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park. It is, as I said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings.

Tiger sighting!

Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited …

Then our guide exclaimed; he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him, a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly;, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!

Tiger by long grass
First sighting
Tiger walking
Birthday tiger!

As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no ‘best’ zone for sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way. But he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy; and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!

Safari drive two

The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had during our stay. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas; it looked lovely in the soft early morning light.

Misty landscape with grass and trees
Early morning light
Paw prints in mud
Tiger tracks beside the jeep

And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and despite seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.

xx

Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much. And I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography; we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos; and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently.

Safari drive three

We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have a third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. What was more, we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!

Ruined temples among trees beside water
Lake and temples

The drive took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.

But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone; he was clearly proud of the photos, and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger; but I didn’t say so. I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one, and I didn’t want to damage their chances.

Tiger alert!

Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it; but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.

Tiger walking among trees
The only half-good shot I got!

This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos. But the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos. And when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video ‘to show his tourists’, he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked. But by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past.

Tiger in long grass from behind
Disappearing fast!

I did point out that we too were ‘his tourists’ and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.

Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel, pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.

Sharing for this week’s Sunday Stills theme of fur and feathers. There should be enough of both here to meet the brief!

I visited Ranthambore in 2015

42 Comments

  • Annie Berger

    Sarah,

    I can only add echo everyone else’s comments about your phenomenal photos of birds and tigers. I cannot imagine anyone taking any better ones than you managed to capture.

    Steven and I were in Sri Lanka in March of 2020 and arranged a safari pretty well at the last minute while we were there. It was a miserable experience with a driver and guide sitting together up front yakking al the time in their own language with little to no regard for us. We saw a couple of elephants but nothing else. That wasn’t the issue because we all realize that this is nature after al and not programmed so it’s matter of some luck as to what animals may be visible. What we found so poor was their lack of English, their complete lack of knowledge in being able to convey even rudimentary facts about the wildlife.

    If and when you go to South Africa, I can’t tell you how strongly I’d recommend you to rent a car in Johannesburg and drive to Kruger National Park and do self driving safaris while there. We had done quite a bit of research and therefore knew which roads to take, etc, so we were able to see The Big Four on our first day without crowds of other drivers. It was a very powerful experience. We rented a car for several days so we could take extensive drives throughout the park. We also did two ranger-led tours but they were hardly worth it by comparison. Please let me know if you want any further suggestions.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Annie 🙂 We did a self-drive safari in Etosha in Namibia. That’s not such a great place for big cats but we saw loads of elephants, zebra etc at several waterholes and were also fortunate to see a rhino which aren’t very numerous there. South Africa is on my radar so if we decide to go one day I’ll definitely come to you for tips! We’re going (hopefully!) to Sri Lanka next February and I’m quite realistic in my expectations of the game drives there, based on what I’ve heard and our experiences here in Ranthambore. There seems to be a cultural difference between how Asian countries arrange such things and African (we’ve had amazingly positive experiences on small group game drives in Botswana and private ones in Tanzania). We have pre-booked the Sri Lanka ones through a very reputable UK company so I trust that we’ll get the best available but I’m prepared for them to be less well-organised and guided than our African ones! Who knows – maybe I’ll get a pleasant surprise?!

  • wetanddustyroads

    I wouldn’t mind receiving a birthday present like this! What a great moment this must have been – love your pictures of the tiger(s) … but that one of the owl is pretty as well (it almost looks as if he/she is winking at you 😉).

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Pam 😃 Definitely recommended but bear in mind that with all wildlife tigers aren’t guaranteed. But the longer you stay the more likely you are to strike lucky!

  • giacomoasinello

    Beautiful photos! We saw 2 tigers on our fourth drive – a mother and a daughter. The sad thing was we had befriended an English lady who accompanied us for the first three but couldn’t make the fourth because of Delhi belly. I hated having to tell her we had seen them!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh no, how disappointing for her! But if you hadn’t told her one of the guides would have been sure to do so I reckon. They all seemed very keen to describe every sighting 🙂

  • sheetalbravon

    Wow! That was quite an adventure and two sightings in one trip is incredible. Sadly I’ve yet to see one in the wild so I know the crushing disappointment of waiting and be satisfied with just the pug marks. By the way Sarah, your photographs are phenomenal. In our rush for the tigers, we forget the flora and fauna that make up the wild. Also a temple inside the park, the zones allocation are things I didn’t know so that made the post very informative. As always, it is a pleasure to see India through your lens.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much for those nice words about the phots Sheetal 😊 We were lucky that we saw that tiger on our first drive, so I was more relaxed on the later ones and quite happy to enjoy the landscape and other wildlife. There’s a huge amount of debate online about which is the best zone, but as you can’t choose it’s all pretty pointless!

  • rkrontheroad

    So exciting, you have some excellent photos, as challenging as that might have been. It’s unfortunate that the drivers and guides don’t work together to facilitate the experience. The safari I went on in South Africa was very well organized and everyone took their turn getting as close as was reasonable.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Ruth 😀 Yes, that’s the issue, the guides don’t collaborate – it’s very competitive. They want to give ‘their’ tourists the best views but in doing that none of them get as good a view as they would if they worked together more. I’ve found African safaris much better in that respect although we’ve not yet been to South Africa. I also think the guides and drivers there give the animals more space on the whole.

  • Rose

    What an adventure and awesome birthday ‘gift’ to see a tiger. All those fur and feather creatures in your shots are so unique. Thank-you for speaking up about the one guide’s behavior. And for letting us know that not all experiences are like this. As the rest of us travel, we can be more aware of giving nature space and speaking up about it.

  • Easymalc

    It’s obviously a wonderful place to see all kinds of wildlife apart from tigers. It’s strange isn’t it how creatures that become rare attract a lot of attention, whereas those that are common are often overlooked. That said, it must have been fantastic to see tigers in the wild

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know what you mean Malcolm, although I find most people who go on safaris get as intrigued by many of the smaller animals and birds even if they went in search of the big hitters!

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    Wow, you really saw the show of fur and feathers, Sarah ! I would have keeled over from the excitement–maybe even wept from joy. Amazing tiger shots (like my eagles, I guess). Your shots are all quite stunning, but I like the one that disappeared because you can really see how quickly the tiger’s stripes blend in with the grass. Too bad about the guides, but you did well nonetheless! I remember years ago swimming with the whale sharks in Baja and screaming under water when the behemoths swam by as if we were flotsam in the sea 🙂 Always great to have you along for Sunday Stills!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Terri 😊 Wow, swimming with whale sharks – that must have been amazing! I should make clear that it was only that one guide, the others were very good. The first was so keen to find me my birthday tiger, and the second the most knowledgeable and patient of the bunch.

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Not everybody gets a tiger as a birthday present, twice! 😀 What a sensational experience this must have been! But i love all the other animals too, especially the kingfisher and the owl.

  • Henna

    Bit thoughtless of your tour guide to just start taking his own photos in front of “his tourists”!
    Amazing sounding trip though and great photos! 🙂

  • restlessjo

    Tigers or no tigers, it looks like a beautiful experience, Sarah. I have to say, they must sometimes feel ‘hunted’ with so many tourists eager for a glimpse. You got some fine shots, in spite of everything.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I worried about that Jo. Although they limit the number of vehicles in each zone, when they’re all in the same spot as they were here it must impact on the tigers even though they are used to it. See my comments to Mari below – I feel that in Africa there is a bit more space and respect given to the wildlife. Although that’s only based on a handful of experiences, so it could be an unfair comparison.

  • maristravels

    What a feast of birds and beasts. Love your tiger photos and if you get one that’s great, two is a bonus, so I think you’ve done pretty well. Your birds are fantastic. I’ve never managed to photograph birds, I don’t know what I do but soon as I get near they take off! Although I’ve never done a safari like yours above, I do remember our two Kenyan safaris and the jostling of guides and jeeps where we did see some lions at rest, male and female, but what I remember most is how our eyesight improved daily as we had to try to see far into the distance and concentrate our vision. I was determined to keep on using my eyes in the same way when we got back to the UK but sadly, there are no distant horizons with which to engage here.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari 🙂 Yes, I think you need a different kind of vision to spot wildlife on the African plains. Those guides train their eyesight for years!! My experiences of African safaris have been much less manic than this was. There’s a different approach to this sort of thing in India – it feels more like a ‘show’, with (I have to say) a bit less respect for the animals’ space. I think there are fewer rules about what guides are and aren’t permitted to do in order to show tourists the animals, or so it seemed to us when compared to our experiences beforehand in Tanzania and since then in Botswana. We hope to do game drives in Sri Lanka next year, assuming we get to go, and I’ve been warned it can be more like the Indian approach than the African!

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