The Adorable Tiger of Ranthambore National Park
“Yes there are leopards in this city, and we can go visit a tiger tomorrow.”
Sometimes when people tell me things in India, they seem so incredulous to my western mind that I’m just not sure whether to believe them or not. But I would trust Vivek Channgani with my life (and kind of almost did at one point, but that’s another story), so when he was telling about these local big cats, during a motorbike ride in the hills of Jaipur, I simply asked him to elaborate.
It was dusk and we were coming back from a visit to the Maharaji of Galtaji Temple, Vivek was pointing to the skyline and looking out for the sillhouette of a leopard. He told me that sometimes you could see them walking along the hilltops, their bodies outlined against the setting sun or the moon while hunting for monkeys and other local animals. His words caused me to retrieve some dusty memory of a David Attenborough documentary that showed leopards occasionally coming into Jaipur City at night, and when I asked Vivek if this was true, did they come into the city centre, he reeled off some recent instances in which it had happened. He quite happily recounted how these big cats could occasionally prowl the streets, but seemed sure that it wasn’t a problem. Just as we live among the monkeys, camels, rats, spiders and birds, we also live among the leopards.
I guess Vivek, expert tour guide that he is, could sense my intrigue and so told me that special Jaipuri Leopard Safaris existed -if I was interested. I was. And in due course, when my parents were visiting, I proceeded to wake them at 5am for a sunrise leopard tour… which ended up being rather disappointing. We only found out afterward that the likelihood of seeing one of the cats was pretty low -of course they don’t tend to tell you these things until after you’ve been carted around in a jeep for a few hours, and tipped the driver too.
A few weeks later, when Vivek and I were together again and discussing itinerary plans for our (then upcoming) INSPIRED INDIA 2018 tour, Vivek suggested we take the guests into the jungle for relaxation and a safari in the nearby Ranthambore National Park. I was of course dubious, considering the reality of my recent leopard experience, and so raised my doubts. Vivek chuckled and agreed with me that, while leopards did exist in Jaipur, they were hard to spot. The chance of seeing a tiger in Ranthambore however, was apparently pretty high. Not guaranteed -but much more likely. I figured I’d look into the idea, and it only took a little research to convince me that this could be a fun new adventure.
Ranthambore National Park was the original inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”. Situated west of Jaipur, Ranthambore consists of vast lands of jungle (a Hindi word which means a "forest, wasteland," derived from the Sanskrit jangala, "desert, uncultivated land), a sky full of birds, a huge number of camouflaged animals scattered between the trees and ancient archeological ruins breaking up the landscape. When our group arrived in the National Park in September 2018, there was such a huge and intimate sense of nature, a peacefulness that was especially magnified in contrast to our fast paced city interactions in the days prior. As like anywhere in India that becomes famous for one particular thing, the locals here did not let us forget that we were now in ‘tiger country’. Fake tiger skins on the floors, tiger paintings on all the hotel walls, tiger key rings, tiger hats, tiger t-shirts, tiger toys… the promise of adventure hung in the air, an ever present undertone to the melody of bird song around us.
Although we were there in the quiet season, thanks to our talented safari guides we did indeed locate a tiger while exploring the Park during a late afternoon safari. These men that guided our jeeps had grown up in the area and were able to read the signs of more visible animals as a means to understand the current situation within the jungle. By watching the way that the monkeys reacted to specific bird cries, they could work out whether a tiger was in the area, and if so, which way the tiger was moving. It was quite impressive, the way they could listen, interpret subtle messages from the animal kingdom, and then act quickly while trying not to scare off the creatures.
And so once they heard the call, we navigated toward a dense area of jungle and were greeted by the beautiful strong body of a female tiger, Ladli, a familiar tigress known to the guides as one of three cats within this section of the Park. Ladli is a Hindi word for adorable, or ‘the adored one’. And adore her we did. Such a breathtaking and powerful creature, nonchalantely walking right past our jeep, so close that we could see her muscles ripple under her shiny orange coat. She didn’t care about us: the tigers were used to humans travelling through the Park and the guides knew how to respect the presence of the cats so as to cause them as little disturbance as little as possible. They had a great relationship with Ladli and the other tigers: they worked to ensure their protection, keeping the tigers and other animals safe, closing sections of the park at specific intervals throughout the year so that they always had long periods of peace, away from our prying tourist eyes. We spent some time watching Ladli stroll through the thicket around us, prowling through the jungle and on the lookout for an evening meal. I’d never seen anything like it, such fierce beauty and a hushed silence all around us. As the tigress disappeared from our sight, the birds around us became a little louder, calling out their evening songs as the late September sun began to set in the sky. It was time to leave.
Excited yet subdued, we noted our good fortune as we left the Park and made our way out of the jungle. As they are wild animals, it’s of course never guaranteed that you’ll see a creature during these advertised tours. We got lucky -we had skillful guides and a perfect afternoon. Ladli the (Adorable) tiger was a highlight within a wonderful day -exploring the landscapes and jungle of Rajasthan, meeting a whole variety of animals and returning home with spirits high and the sun sinking low.
All photography by Precious LaPlante during INSPIRED INDIA 2018 hosted by Victoria Leader and Vivek Chhangani