Big cats, Bigger chase

My Ranthambore tiger safari.

March 21, 2011 9:59 IST | India Infoline News Service

As soon as we landed in Sawai Madhopur to visit the well-known Ranthambore National Park, we saw an open jeep promptly waiting for us at the station. This timely welcome showed us the promise of an exciting adventure ahead. And the blissful jeep ride to the hotel through the windy roads further accentuated our anticipation.

But little did we know that the grand build-up to the actual event would come to an equally grand naught at the tiger safari...The overly commercialised expedition hurts even more when you don’t spot any tiger - the sole purpose of the endeavour. Worse, the number of vehicles in the jungle reminds you of the urban world making you feel at “home” for the wrong reasons. Morning safari or evening safari, cantor or jeep ride, buffer area or core area, we couldn’t spot a single tiger end to end. Gradually but indisputably, it dawned on us why it’s impossible to spot a tiger in the expanse...

Of the total jungle area spread over 1,334 sq km, only a quarter has been kept open for tourists and quite obviously, this 1/4
th is not the dense part of the forest. The quarter is split into 8 zones and the hapless tourist is taken for a ride (literally or otherwise) in any one zone alone. So that leaves you with a meagre 3% area for the expedition. Worse, this 3% area is marked by a track that invariably has eight to ten vehicles roaring back and forth packed with anxious tourists. Now imagine the prospect of spotting a tiger among the 30-odd population given the fact that a 33% visibility (at best) leaves an area of 1% for your roving eye and several noisy vehicles moving around noisily. And unless you have done your homework and book a ride in the core area specifically, you are sent to zones 6, 7 or 8, which are not the main jungle areas, where the chances of spotting a tiger are even lesser.

Even the locals agreed that the chance of spotting a tiger was 1 in 50. Forget tigers, you find more tourist jeeps than even deer and cows put together. We felt let down with the overall jungle experience and the sparse population of animals; watching a stray cow or the odd deer, few and far between. Your best bet would only mean multiple trips to the place with the hope of getting lucky with a better zone at least on one of the trips. And don’t build high hopes of spotting a tiger. Spending a chilled weekend with low expectations makes better sense. Agreed there isn’t much else to do in Ranthambhore but a two-night stay would prove rewarding. Invariably, all hotels are at quite a distance from the jungle. So, don’t expect a stay in the lap of nature. And cantor or jeeps – your experience is almost the same. Even if you are lucky to spot a tiger, the scene would be nowhere similar to that shown in the Discovery channel or the movie Kaal. The tiger would be at quite a distance from you. Also, before embarking on the trip, remember that the adventure is physically challenging - replete with dirt-spinning wheels, dumpy roads, arduous early morning rides and back aches. It’s better to carry warm clothing to guard against the morning chills.

For the Safari Management, the revenue stream is much more promising than what the prospects spell for the tourists. An average ticket price of Rs1,000 per person swells into a sizeable heap if you consider 8 zones x (4 jeeps x 6 seats) and (4 cantors x 16 seats) x 2 shifts per day. And it’s prudent to note that there’s not a penny back if no tiger is spotted. So, the whole revenue is guaranteed at entry point. This is against the popular practice abroad where they refund as much as 50% of the fee if the touring goal is not achieved. Even in Goa, you pay nothing for the boat if you don’t spot dolphins.

Don’t get me wrong. The Ranthambore Park is undoubtedly devoted to a noble cause of preserving the big cats. But from a tourism point of view, one would obviously expect a healthy number of the species in a tiger safari. But in reality, the current population is only 30, falling from 50 numbers a decade ago. To be fair to the Ranthambore management, we can’t put the accusing finger on them for the diminishing numbers, but one would definitely like them to study what the Gir forest is doing right. With a lion population of over 400, the Gir is known to be one of the biggest wildlife preservation success stories in the world. In emulating the Gir story, the Ranthambore management, more than pleasing tourists, will endorse a national mission of critical significance: Save the Tiger.

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