Saturday, December 14, 2002
S I T E S  A N D  S C E N E S

Ranthambhore — Land of the tiger
Sanjay Austa

The tiger reserve is spread over 400 sq km
The tiger reserve is spread over 400 sq km — Photo by Subhash Bhardwaj

EVERY tourist visiting the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is treated to breathtaking scenes of the wild. The reserve’s 20-seater canters and gypsies ferry tourists for three hours, twice a day, covering an area of 40 sq km in the approximately 400-sq km park. The drivers of canters and gypsies double up as tiger-trackers and when an alarm call is relayed from one animal to the other, they are quick to decipher its import. They quietly switch off the engine, cock their heads to listen and watch patiently. And if you lucky, you will get to spot a tiger. To see the extolled, feared and the revered tiger — the largest and the most ferocious of the cat family — in its natural habitat is indeed an experience which brings forth myriad of emotions.


The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve has been offering this opportunity to tourists ever since it was established in 1972. It is truly the Land of the Tiger. It is a must-see site not only for the wildlife aficionados but also for the uninitiated. Even Bill Clinton could not do without squeezing in a trip to Ranthambhore during his short visit to India over two years ago. At present, the Ranthambhore reserve has over 35 tigers and is the best tiger reserve as far as opportunities for sightings are concerned. The deciduous trees and the sparse undergrowth of the forest provide an unblocked view for up to 500 metres. But even then it is rare to come upon the elusive beast in just one safari trip. The male tiger commands a territory of over 40 sq km, while the female lords over 20 sq km. In such large an area it is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. What makes the sightings easier is the tiger’s penchant for a stroll on the dusty safari road. This leaves prominent pugmarks behind.

A view of the Ranthambhore forest from the fort
A view of the Ranthambhore forest from the fort — Photo by Subhash Bhardwaj

The reserve is only 13 km from Swai Madhopur, a dusty congested Rajasthan town. There are a number of low-budget hotels in the town, while the luxury hotels are located near the reserve. Ranthambhore lies where the Aravallis and the Vindhya mountain ranges meet. Therefore, the landscape here is diverse and varied. Gradual slopes juxtapose with steep hillsides. At places, narrow gorges lie beneath craggy cliffs, while at others wide-expansive valleys spread out. The forest soil is dry and dusty but there is no dearth of lakes, ponds, streams, and narrow rivulets. There are three big lakes — Padam Talav, Malik Talav, and Raj Bagh. The tropical dry deciduous Ranthambhore forest favours varied vegetation. There are a large number of dhok trees. The leaves of this sturdy tree are good fodder for the herbivores even long after they have fallen. Palas (flame of the forest) gum trees, gurjan and softwood salar are some of the other types of trees found here.

The leopard, the other feline, is found here in sizeable numbers but chooses to live on the fringes of the reserve rather than risk a clash with the tiger. Because of this and its legendary elusiveness, its sighting is very rare. Hyena, fox, jackal, crocodile and the sloth bear are the other carnivores dotting the vast expanse of the reserve. But what make up the majority of the Ranthambhore’s population are the hoofed animals — namely the sambar, spotted-deer, chinkara, nilgai, and the wild boars.

The sambar, the spotted deer and the wild boar can often be seen in both small and big herds. The sambar is usually found neck-deep in the weed-infested ponds or lakes, feeding on its favourite food — the lotus fronds. The wild boars when not wallowing belly-up in mud are digging up the earth for succulent roots. The spotted-deer, the nilgai and the chinkara graze in the grassiest glades, even as they keep a vigil for the tiger. There are more than 264 species of birds — both migratory and resident — found here. They include the crested serpent-eagle, king vulture, great Indian horned owl, brown fish owl, kingfisher, parakeet and goose.

The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is a unique and brave experiment to save not only the tiger but also to maintain an ecological balance in the area. It was after recording the tigers’ census in 1972 that the Indian Government was jolted into taking stringent steps to save the endangered animal. The census revealed that there were less then 2000 tigers in India. Project Tiger was launched that year and ever since the Ranthambhore reserve has been the focal point of all conservation activities surrounding the tiger. Ranthambhore had for centuries been the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur. Tiger-hunting was a favourite sport of the maharajas, who were also known for taking their guests for tiger shikar. Thousands of tigers were killed in these ruthless hunting escapades. Ever since its launch, Project Tiger has managed to raise the tiger population a little but reports of one tiger death a day (through poaching and otherwise) indicates that the tiger may soon go the dodo way.

The Ranthambhore fort

Ranthambhore is famous for its tigers and the visitors who come here pay scant attention to the 1000-year-old fort hugging a steep hilltop. The fort is the next best attraction of Ranthambhore after the tigers. It is one of the oldest forts in Rajasthan and a symbol of invincibility and architectural wonder. The main entrance to the tiger reserve is in fact just adjacent to the steep paved ascent leading up to the Ranthambhore fort. There are no entry tickets as the fort houses temples (Hindu and Jain) and mosques, regularly visited by the locals.

The fort was built strategically on the hilltop and it provides a panoramic view of the Ranthambhore forest below. Built in the 10th century, the fort houses some splendid monuments. Hamir Mahal — the living abode of the fort’s Maharaja — was on the verge of collapse and is currently being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. Among the fort’s spectacular monuments is a splendid 32-pillar chatri near Hamir Mahal.