Jungle Book: The Search for Bengal Tigers in Ranthambore, India

 

“He’s watching us,” says the guide, leaning out of our idling Jeep and pointing to the soft-dirt road in the jungle that we’ve been traversing. Monkeys screech overhead, swinging from the Banyan trees. “He’s circled back behind us, and he’s watching us. He’s here—listen to the monkeys, they’re warning the other animals of an imminent danger.”

Looking at where he is pointing on the road, on top of our previous tire tracks, the tiger has left fresh paw prints. Enormous paws—each one nearly as large as a manhole cover. We had driven over his original tracks just moments earlier, and now he has walked all over ours. The guide explains how to tell this tiger is a male simply by the way the toes curled, but I’m not looking at the tracks anymore. My eyes are glued to the thicket. If a ferocious tiger is about to maul us, I want to get a picture. I recently read that tigers have killed more humans than any other cat, but I have been assured nothing tragic has happened here for a very long time. Then we hear the blood-curdling squeal. The entire jungle leaps into crisis-mode. The cacophony echoes through the valley.

“Just over that crest!” the tracker says, lurching the vehicle forward a few feet, shaking his hand toward a spot where our Jeep clearly can’t climb. “He’s just downed a deer.”

I had almost died two days prior, trying to get to this remote jungle on the eastern border of the western India state of Rajasthan, and I’m not planning to return home without seeing a royal Bengal tiger, the largest, most vicious and yet elegant of the cat family. The dusty, deciduous jungle that is the Ranthambore National Park and Wildlife Refuge, less than a generation ago served as coveted tiger-hunting grounds for the maharajas (the former royal class) of Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital city.

I had never been quite so eager to leave a city as I was to exit Jaipur, a bustling, chaotic city of approximately 3 million people, where wild hogs dart through traffic at rush hour and veiled women with jewelry pinned through their noses walk along the roadside balancing bundles of twigs the size of king-sized beds atop their heads. It wasn’t because I didn’t find Jaipur fascinating. I did, tremendously. It was because India’s tiger-filled jungles were the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and I wanted to inhabit his fantasy. Having been in India more than a week already, I was adjusting nicely to country’s caste culture, luxuriating  in the back seat of my hired Range Rover, air-conditioning blasting frivolously as I hung my camera out the window to freeze the memories of turbaned street life on the outskirts of town. Traffic would surge, then stop, surge, stop, in response to cows meandering onto the road or to several elder Muslims dressed in crisp white gowns pushing a rusty tractor through a busy intersection by hand.

As “The Pink City” shrank in our rearview window, the road ahead grew skinnier. Every third car on the road at this point was a camel. Every second was a motorcycle. Every  fourth, an ox—with or without wooden cart in tow. All the remaining autos were the ubiquitous and elaborately painted service trucks (imagine dump trucks covered with graffiti) that served every imaginable purpose from hauling commercial merchandise to ferrying as many humans as could astonishingly cling onto every conceivable surface of the trucks as they raced to destinations that were obviously much different than ours. We slowed to a crawl from time to time as we passed through small villages where our Range Rover must have looked as foreign and intriguing to the locals as a presidential motorcade to most Americans if it were to pass in front of our house. From what was visible from my backseat vantage point, each rustic village appeared capable of supporting maybe a hundred residents at most. Yet each time we passed through one of these places, swarms of at least 30, sometimes 50, schoolchildren dressed in tan pants and powder blue shirts rushed to the roadside to wave, smiling ecstatically as they chased our dust. It appeared they were not chasing us for money or handouts. They simply loved to wave at white people in fancy cars—their version, I guess, of my schoolmates and me putting pennies on the train tracks once a month when the rare freight train would pass through town. We were simply an oddity the children all wanted to see.

Driving in India requires a level of skill far more advanced than what’s taught in NASCAR, I’ve decided. My driver thus far had proven his mettle, dodging stray dogs and unmarked trenches with aplomb and gracefully veering into the ditch when a truck larger than us barreled our way with no apparent plan to yield. As the road to narrowed to just one lane, only partially paved, my companion in the back seat nudged me and pointed at the driver. I looked up from my novel to notice his red turban nodding suspiciously toward the steering wheel. We were barreling head-on toward a camel, and our driver was taking a nap. We missed the camel, whose handler miraculously maneuvered the slow-moving beast out of our way.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Wake up! We almost killed that guy!”

Asleep at the wheel.

Red Turban bounced upright and the Range Rover corrected to the proper side of the road just in time to avoid a motorcycle that we forced into the ditch on the other side of the road.

“Huh? What!?  What!?” the driver muttered, shaking his head to rattle his eyelids open. He shrugged it off as if nothing had happened. I scooted over so I could see his eyes in the mirror. Mere moments later, his lids grew heavy again, and the turban began to bob. Oh shit, here we go! Our SUV swerved directly into head-on traffic. We banged the driver’s seat with our fists and shouted again.

“LOOK OUT!!”

Four hours later we arrived in Ranthambore on schedule, about an hour before sunset. A tiger tracker and translator were waiting for us at the hotel, so we dropped off our luggage without checking in, piled into a camouflaged, open-air Jeep and sped away from our city driver. We had
just enough time for an abbreviated tiger drive before sundown, at which point it is illegal and dangerous to still be in the park. We lingered far too long as we gawked at steely blue nilgai, golden sambar deer, jackals, crocodiles, sikka deer and monkeys galore, and by the time we reached the tigers’ chosen habitat, the sun was already slipping behind the craggy mountains. We had to turn around. Our vintage Jeep hurtled dangerously through the jungle’s harsh tangle of shrubs, splashing wildly across low-flowing marshes. We would face hefty fines if we were late—and since I’d probably be the one to buy our way out of trouble if we got busted, I held on for dear life (no seatbelts, of course). We lifted off the ground every time we crested a small hill. “Look! A kingfisher!” the tracker would point out as we flew past an iridescently plumed bird with a spear-tipped beak. We reached the gate seven minutes past curfew, and the park ranger exchanged heated words with our driver in a language I couldn’t decipher. We would return again at sunrise.

More or less everyone who treks to Ranthambore does so for one reason: to see the tigers. But not everyone will see a tiger, or even hear the endangered predator take down a deer, as we just have. Estimates put the number of tigers in Ranthambore somewhere between 20 and 40, and speculatively increasing (or decreasing, depending on who you believe).

Oberoi Vanyavilas

In between game drives, the area’s most elite tourists take refuge at the Oberoi Vanyavilas near the trailhead leading into the park. Two elephants dressed in ceremonial regalia greet visitors at the fortressed front gates (their tongues are bizarrely hot-pink). An elegant courtyard citadel houses the hotel’s lobby, a restaurant, a wood-paneled British library where cocktails are served, and a blue-and-black-tiled pool. An outdoor dining room encircles a sunken, boxing-ring-sized fire pit. The slap-clack of a billiards game ricochets against the courtyard walls while the strange, melancholy warble of a didgeridoo-like instrument reverberates from a corner of the restaurant.

Guests reside in 25 lavishly appointed “tents” sprawled across 20 acres of gardens planted with lemon and mango trees and enough lotus blossoms to perfume the neighboring valleys. King-sized four-poster beds, polished hardwood floors, roll-top freestanding tubs, private sunbathing decks with hand-carved chaises, internet access, 24-hour butler service—the Rajasthanis really know how to camp. Large one-bedroom villas, the tents are supported by permanent adobe-like walls and topped with elaborately embroidered canopies, which are protected from the elements by a thick outer-layer of canvas.

Although the sun grows so hot that camels want to do nothing more than stand in the shade and wag their tongues, by midnight a deep chill sets in. I arrive back at my tent each night after dinner to find my bed not merely turned down, but with a family-sized hot-water bottle tucked between my Frette sheets to keep the bed warm.

I awake before sunrise for the third day in a row. I pull on my khaki safari outfit one last time, down a glass of mango juice and rush out the door to meet up with my tracker and guide for one final push into the depths of the tigers’ domain. I have yet to see a single cat—and my city driver in the red turban is due back at Vanyavilas to retrieve me at noon.

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