The Thrill of Tracking Bengal tigers in Ranthambore National Park
We sat in our jeep in total silence, parked high up on a dry, grassy hilltop in Ranthambore National Park. Below us lay the wide expanse of sector six, one of the park’s ten designated safari zones. This was the best spot to listen for the tell-tale warning cries that might lead us towards our prize, the magnificent Bengal tiger.
When we’d booked our trip months earlier, we never imagined that finding a tiger would prove so tricky. But with just an hour remaining in our third and final safari, things weren’t looking promising. Would we even get to see one at all?
An Elusive Giant
Bengal tigers are one of the most incredible animals in the world. Ranking among the biggest cats alive today, they are the national animal of both India and Bangladesh.
Sadly they are at risk of extinction, with only a few thousand Bengal tigers left in the wild. They are threatened mainly by poachers, who target them for their pelts or to use their bones in traditional medicines. Less frequently they are revenge killed by farmers, whose slow-moving cattle are often easy prey for a hungry tiger.
The majority of wild Bengal tigers are found in India, with smaller populations present in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. There are 48 tiger reserves in India that are trying to stabilise the numbers of these beautiful creatures.
Covering roughly 400 square kilometres of northern India, Ranthambore National Park is one of the more popular tiger conservation areas, due to its close proximity to Delhi. It is located in the south-east of the state of Rajasthan, about 140 km south-east of Jaipur.
It was here, in Ranthambore, that we spent a couple of eventful days in search of the elusive Bengal tiger.
Going on Safari
Many visitors to Ranthambore National Park choose to stay at one of the many hotels in the town of Ranthambore, just outside the park. Once there, you have the option of either a morning or an afternoon safari. Many people do both.
The morning safari leaves just before sunrise, with the hope that you will spot the tigers on the move before they settle down in the shade to escape the midday heat.
The afternoon safari gives you a chance to either find a tiger snoozing beside a watering hole or, even better, catch them on the move as they become more active towards sunset.
Either way, you only have three and a half hours on each safari to try and spot one of these big cats. It’s for this reason that many visitors book multiple safaris.
Finding the Right Time
Ranthambore National Park is only open to the public between 1st October and 30th June. The rest of the time the park is inaccessible due to the monsoon weather.
We visited at the end of October but you’re more likely to spot a tiger later in the season (towards March) when a large number of deciduous trees in the park lose their leaves.
Sector Pot Luck
Another key factor affecting your tiger-spotting chances is the sector that your safari is in. Some of the ten sectors either don’t have as many tigers, or the landscape in the sector affects your chances of seeing them. Unless you book online and request a specific sector, your sector will be allocated by park officials on the day of your safari. This will be the case for most people booking through a travel agency. It’s yet another reason to take more than one safari.
Tigers are large, warm-blooded creatures and are rarely active in the heat of the day. At that time you may find them resting in the shade, but if the foliage is thick they will be much harder to spot, camouflaged by their stripes. Some sectors have thinner foliage, making it easier to spot a sleeping Bengal.
If it gets too hot, a tiger will find a watering hole to lie in and lower their body heat. On an afternoon safari, guides will usually first check out a sector’s watering holes for resting tigers, before trying other spots.
You’ll be less likely to see tigers if your sector has a large number of watering holes because the tigers have so many places to choose from.
On the flip-side, if there hasn’t been a lot of rain, park rangers will sometimes artificially fill the watering holes to make sure that the tigers and other park animals have sufficient water.
Jeep or Canter
You have two transport options for your safari, the canter or the jeep (otherwise known as the gypsy). The canter is an open top truck with bench seating for around twenty people. The park’s jeeps are also open top and seat six people only plus a driver and guide. Both vehicles are four-wheel drive and both can navigate all of the roads in the park.
Being smaller, the jeep is rather more nimble than the canter but its biggest advantage is that with its smaller size and significantly less passengers, you won’t have to fight your way through strangers to snap off a photo.
The jeep’s benefits come with an increased cost but if you can afford the higher price we highly recommend using a jeep. If you do manage to spot a tiger, you want to ensure that your time with it is maximised and unobscured by others.
A Dusty Beginning
To reach the park entrance you must first travel from your hotel through the little town of Ranthambore along dusty and partially unsealed roads. Regardless of which vehicle you’re in, you’ll be sitting up top, exposed to the elements. You may want to bring along a face mask to cover your face, or simply grim and bare it as we did, with your face shoved down inside your t-shirt!
Dustiness aside, Ranthambore is a bustling little town. For me, the journey to and from the park was one of the highlights of each safari, as our jeep made its way through the town centre dodging pigs, cows, goats, camels and other vehicles.
Deer, Deer, Deer – No Tigers
Our first safari was in the afternoon. We met our main guide at our hotel, along with our driver and another guide who spoke less English. We would keep the main guide for all three safaris but the other two would change with each one. With three experienced tiger trackers to help us, it seemed a given that we’d easily find a tiger.
Passing through the entrance into sector four, it wasn’t long before we spotted our first wildlife; well, our guide did anyway. He’d quietly call out each animal that we came across in turn. Sambar deer, spotted deer, antelope, mongoose, monkey, wild boar. Lots and lots of animals. But no tigers.
Click here for a list of all the wildlife you can see in the park.
A Female in Sector Four
But it wasn’t that long before the driver suddenly stopped the jeep and pointed to the ground. There, in the sandy road was one of the biggest paw prints I’ve ever seen. It apparently belonged to a female Bengal tiger and it was reasonably recent. That meant that she was probably still in the area. Wow, I thought to myself, this tiger tracking thing is actually pretty easy.
Guides look for paw prints on the park’s roads because tigers often walk along those roads while moving around their territory. Because their feet have quite soft pads on them, they don’t enjoy walking on rocky terrain. I guess that’s one instance where man’s intrusion into their environment has helped rather than hindered them.
Weighing up to 160kg and reaching 2.5 metres in length (including their tail), female Bengal tigers are quite a bit lighter and smaller than the males, who can be up to 100kg heavier and almost half a metre longer. Still, judging by the size of those paw prints, this was one big cat!
Based on the direction that the paw prints were pointing, we spent a good deal of time driving around trying to find this tiger. Eventually, we drove down onto the banks beside a watering hole and just sat there in silence for a good five minutes or so.
Listening for Sambar Deer
The guides were listening for tell-tale warning cries from other animals in the area, that might help pinpoint the location of the tiger. These cries are often from a Sambar deer. The Sambar deer are large and fairly slow, making it one of the easier animals for a Bengal Tiger to catch. Fortunately for the Sambar, it also has an excellent sense of smell, so it’s often first to catch a whiff of a nearby tiger and sound the alarm.
Going Home Empty Handed
After failing to find the female tiger, we drove around the sector for the next couple of hours, trying to spot another tiger. We saw another set of prints for a different tiger but they didn’t lead us anywhere.
Despite this setback, it was still a very enjoyable experience. There’s a great sense of anticipation throughout the safari, especially when you come across a set of paw marks. You’re never really sure just how close the tiger is, although your guides will guess based on how fresh the prints appear.
Ranthambore National Park is also an incredibly beautiful place. Hemmed in on all sides by rocky cliffs, it has a variety of terrain, even within a single sector. Combine that with frequent sightings of wildlife, and the fun of watching your expert driver battle some of the park’s more challenging roads, and you’re never short of entertainment.
That said, we were pretty disappointed not to have seen a tiger and we were starting to suspect that three safaris might not be enough. But the first safari the following day was a sunrise one. It was probably our best chance of seeing a tiger because they are often very active in the morning.
Unlucky Sector Ten
Our guide greeted us at our hotel bright and early the next day before sunrise. He told us that we had been allocated sector ten and that it was a good sector for seeing tigers. This was news to Cindy, who as usual had done her research beforehand. Based on the number of recent sightings, sector ten seemed a pretty poor one to be allocated. Although we kept it to ourselves, we were secretly rather downbeat.
But the ride through the town at dawn was rather magical, as we watched Ranthambore come to life and people go about their early morning chores. We entered sector ten through a big old gate in the Ranthambore Fort perimeter defence wall. That was a great way to kick off our safari.
The Wounded Male
Not too long into our sunrise safari our guides stopped the jeep and pointed to a very large set of tiger paw prints. Apparently, these were very fresh (within the last half hour) and belonged to the largest male tiger in Ranthambore. We were pretty excited to be on the trail of a tiger so quickly and we began to think that maybe sector ten wasn’t so bad after all.
Apparently, this male has an injured leg, probably from a territorial dispute with another male. Normally this would eventually prove fatal to a tiger if he’s unable to catch prey. But our guide told us that the rangers sometimes leave him animal carcasses to find and he can also prey on cattle and water buffalo from adjoining farms. It seemed like his sore leg wasn’t actually much of an impediment, except that he couldn’t move very fast. Surely that also meant that we could track him down super easily.
But again we failed to find him or any other tigers during our safari and we finally headed out of the park, out of luck again.
To the Fort?
On the way back to the hotel our guide suggested that he take us to see Ranthambore Fort instead of our afternoon safari. He said that tigers were occasionally spotted there and that it was a rather interesting place. Given that we’d paid up front for the final safari, we didn’t think that was such a great idea. Anyway, we could have our regular driver take us there for free in between safaris.
Ranthambore Fort is actually pretty neat and you should check it out if you get a chance. It gives you a chance to get a bit of exercise if you’ve been sitting in a car for days on end like we had. You can climb the stairs to the top of the fort and then wander around the grounds and look out across the surrounding wilderness.
There are a ridiculous number of monkeys in and around the fort, especially at the top. If you’re not a fan of monkeys (we love them), then you might want to give the fort a miss. They’re not aggressive but they were very active. We saw one monkey use an unsuspecting lady as a stepping stone, as he leapt from one wall to another.
The Final Attempt
After a quick lunch back at the hotel, we greeted our guide for the final safari. He told us that we were heading to sector six which gave us a bit of hope. We’d read that sector six was quite good for spotting tigers and our guide confirmed that six had the best record for sightings recently.
Driving through the gate into sector six, it was clear why this sector was great for tiger sightings. It was relatively flat and there was plenty of forested areas without much foliage at ground level. It looked like it would be pretty easy to spot a tiger.
The main tiger our guide was on the lookout for was a female who had recently been seen quite often along with her two fully grown cubs. While Bengal tigers are generally solitary animals, cubs will stay with their mother for a couple of years until they are ready to go off on her own.
Apparently, this group had been seen almost every day recently. But as luck would have it, no-one had seen them in the morning safari. Our guide speculated that they may have scored a kill.
When a tiger makes a kill, they will drag their prey away out of sight and stay with it for a few days while they digest their meal. If that was the case with this female and her cubs, we probably wouldn’t find her. Tigers can eat up to thirty kilograms of meat in one go and then survive for up to three weeks without eating!
A Leopard Gives us the Willies
Not having any luck, we drove across to some higher ground within the sector. We stopped our jeep next to the ruin of an old wall while our guide went to answer the call of nature next to some long grass.
He quickly came scurrying back with a startled look on his face and started talking excitedly to the others in Hindi. They hopped up on the wall and looked down into the shrubbery at something. Maybe we’d inadvertently managed to find a tiger?
Close, but no cigar. He’d actually stumbled on a leopard, sleeping in the long grass. Our guide had only spotted the leopard when it stuck its ears up above the blades of grass. I asked if he would have attacked and the answer was “Of course, he was stalking me!” A few moments longer and it might have been the end of our safari, and probably our guide; a close call!
It was beginning to look like the sleeping leopard was the closest we were going to get to a big cat encounter. In one last attempt to find a tiger, we headed up to the highest part of the sector to listen for warning signs.
Say Hello to Kumbha
Just when we thought that we would run out of time again, with only an hour or so remaining in our final safari, our guide heard the unmistakable warning call of a spotted deer. He excitedly pointed down the hill to where it came from and our driver quickly started the engine.
“Get your camera ready, get your camera ready!” We hadn’t seen him this excited in any of our previous safaris. The jeep raced down the hill, with us holding on for dear life. At the bottom of the hill, a couple of rangers pointed us in the direction of the tiger. We drove towards it and pulled up at the end of a long line of jeeps and canters. Apparently, every other jeep in the sector was already here.
Our guide pointed into the bushes, about thirty metres away. That’s when we saw it, a huge Bengal tiger walking slowly and gracefully between the trees. This was tiger T-34, better known as Kumbha, a ten-year-old male.
It’s difficult to describe just how beautiful Kumbha was. It was almost magical how he just waltzed through the park, seemingly oblivious to all the excited shouting around him. He surely knew that we were there but he didn’t care at all. It appears the tigers are quite used to all of the hubbub.
A Closer Look
Kumbha was partially obscured by trees as he wandered along in the distance and for a minute we thought that was as close as we’d get.
But our driver pulled some seriously crazy moves to somehow get us around most of the other jeeps and into the second position in the line. With that, we drove towards where Kumbha seemed to be heading.
Our guide explained that it was quite rare to see a male tiger because at around forty square kilometres, their territory is almost double that of a female, and unlike the females, their territories do not overlap with other males. They do however overlap with one or more females’ territories in order to allow the male to mate. Our guide said that Kumbha’s belly looked quite full and that he’d probably just finished digesting a kill and was setting out to check his territory.
Where did he go?
We sat further along the road, waiting for Kumbha to come out of the trees but he didn’t appear. However a few spotted deer nearby suddenly pricked up their ears, so we knew he was still in the area.
Suddenly our second guide shouted and pointed down the road. Turns out Kumbha had moved a lot faster than we’d expected and he was now up ahead of us. Our driver drove like an absolute madman down the road and we suddenly pulled up right beside Kumbha. He was walking atop a raised mound of earth, parallel to the road.
Kumbha was absolutely huge, yet he moved along so gracefully. At first, he didn’t seem bothered by us at all but then he briefly turned his head towards our jeep and snarled, showing his huge teeth. That snarl frankly sent a shiver down my spine and I began to wonder if the guide had been telling the truth when he told us that tigers never attack the jeep.
Taking a Dip
Fortunately, the snarl was as far as it went and Kumbha headed off a few metres inland to a nice tiger-sized pond, where he proceeded to fully immerse himself for several minutes, giving us an amazing photo-op.
After that he stood up, shook himself off and rubbed himself up against a low hanging branch, clearly enjoying himself. Finally, he lay down and rolled onto his back, raising his feet in the air. He looked relaxed and in total control. He certainly didn’t have anything to worry about from us. We were madly snapping off photos.
After all the excitement of seeing our first Bengal Tiger, it was time to leave the park for good. With a brilliant red sunset behind us, we took one final group photo on the grassy hilltop where we first heard the warning cries. Then it was time for the dusty drive back to our hotel.
On the way back our guide explained that we’d actually been allocated sector nine for our final safari. He also told us he hated sector nine and ten as you very rarely see tigers there. This directly contradicted what he’d told us in the morning but I guess he’d just been trying to keep our hopes up. It also explained why he’d suggested going to the fort instead. He didn’t think we’d see anything in sector nine.
So how did we end up in sector six instead? Well in India, with a little persuasion, anything is possible!
What to Take With You?
The morning safari will be quite chilly at first, so bring a jumper or light jacket that you can take off once the sun rises and the day begins to heat up. On the afternoon safari, wear comfortable, light-fitting clothes. You probably won’t need an extra layer although it’s always good to be prepared just in case.
For both safaris, bring a hat, plenty of water and remember to apply sunscreen and insect repellent liberally. You will be exposed to the elements for most of the safari and the Indian sun is deceptively strong.
Getting to Ranthambore National Park
There are plenty of options for getting to Ranthambore National Park. You can fly to a nearby city such as Jaipur and then catch a train, bus or private car. The nearest train station is Sawai Madhopur Railway Station which is 10km from the park. You can then catch a bus or taxi to get to the park.
For more complete information on the options available, click here.
What Does It Cost?
For foreigners, a single safari costs 1,539 rupees per person (as of 2018-2019 prices). Children under five years old are free and the cost for Indian nationals is about half the foreigner price.
For foreigners, a single safari in a canter costs 1302 rupees per person which is really not that much cheaper than a jeep. Go the jeep!
Check out our Video
To see just how beautiful Ranthambore National Park and Kumbha are, check out our video:
Booking Your Safari
For more information about booking your safari, check out this excellent guide at Tripsavvy.
Use the search box below to book your accommodation in Ranthambore: