It was a regular December evening in Bombay. The roads were noisy, the rail tracks dirty, and the station platforms crowded. I stood on the railway station's foot-overbridge and saw the sun sink behind the shabby concrete buildings in a dusty pink sky. The Bombay Jaipur Superfast, or 'Bombay Super' for short, would leave the city at 1840 and reach Sawai Madhopur at 1030 next morning. We'd planned the New Year's first weekend in Ranthambore -- chasing winters (something we dearly miss in Bombay) and seeking tigers in the wild.

A few hours later, the train was threading its way through the western ghats under a gray black sky. It was a blue moon night. I stood at the door and took the wind in my face -- one of those rare simple pleasures semi-lost in a city life. Lubna took an overnight bus from Udaipur and joined me on the same train at Kota station in the morning.

Overnight: Ankur Resorts

We reached Sawai Madhopur at 1030 on Friday. I could feel the chill of north Indian winter in my lungs. The cold air was a welcome break from the warm half-sleeve winters of Bombay. We checked into Ankur Resorts - a rather ordinary lodge than a good hotel. It was the only place available and the tariff had been hiked up three times because of the Christmas - New Year demand. That afternoon, we went to Ranthambore National Park's safari booking office, a short walk from our resort, and found that agents had already lined up at the tiny window with thick bundles of forms under their arms.

Organized canter and jeep safaris were conducted twice a day - one at dawn and another in late afternoon; and all safari drives into the national park were booked centrally through this forest department office. Only 20 Gypsys (each carrying 6) and 20 canters (each carrying 20) were allowed inside the 5 zones of the park each time. Entry to the park costs Rs. 429 in a Gypsy and Rs. 334 in a canter. The three-hour drives can also be booked online if you know your travel dates in advance. As an unsaid rule, all Gypsys are sold out well in advance. Seats in canter are usually available in current window booking as well as online. Current bookings start two hours prior the drive. If you are wary of queues, resorts will book you a seat in a canter through an agent for Rs. 450. The zones are allocated randomly. As they say, "You don't choose the zone; the zone chooses you."

1st Game Drive: Zone 4

At 2 pm, we were enroute to Ranthambore National Park, about 8 km from our resort, in canter number 187 along with Ramesh, our very enthusiastic driver. Bare trunks of dry decidious forests rose on mountains sides. The ancient rocks of Aravalis crumbled under our canter tyres. Golden clouds of fine dust rose behind canter and jeep trails. We passed a Mughal gate after the park entrance and turned left in Zone 4.

"There are two ways to spot a tiger. First, by a call. And second, by following pug marks," our naturalist addressed us as Ramesh raced the canter on the bumpy forest trail. Dense forest, still green in patches, grew on either sides of the trail. "Animals give out a warning call as soon as they spot a tiger. By listening to the calls, we can get nearer to the tiger. The other way is trace pug marks. Tigers have soft paws and like to walk on roads instead of bushes," our naturalist continued. Barely five minutes into the drive, we saw deers and sambhars casually plucking the greens. And just when we were about to move on, Ramesh hushed everyone on our canter. "Call!"

A sambhar groaned once again. The animals around us froze. "Definite call hai," Ramesh declared. For the next ten minutes, we heard the same sambhar call several times. Deers and sambhars stood frozen, scared even to bat an eyelid. The tiger must have been within 50 meters of our canter. But the visitors' patience wore out soon. "Arey chalo Ramesh ji," the canter behind us honked. Ramesh was sad to move on but continued into the park.

We spotted a brown-winged Kingfisher. "But the Kingfishers are blue no?" a lady in our canter contested. "Yes, there are blue Kingfishers. And there are brown Kingfishers. You will see another one when you get back to your resorts in the evening," Ramesh quipped.

The Aravalis were beautiful. Layers of stones - white, yellow, brown and a million colors in between - must have aged a million years before presenting this delightful sight. Light gently bounced off the mountain ranges till the farther ones faded and blended into the orange pink sky. We continued our quest for a glimpse of the elusive king, but had little luck. We parked the canter near a small lake and waited for movememt in grass. Other canters and Gypsys too had lined up around the lake. An old tigress prowled this territory. Here too, the patience ran out soon. And just as we moved, people in a canter behind us and some people in the rear of our of canter let out shrill cries. "Tiger!" "Woh dekho" "Oh shit, where?" and it was gone. Some people were pretty sure they glanced the tigress. Others were not so sure but were willing to count this as a sighting. We were in the frontside of our canter and saw nothing.

There was strict discipline around exit timings for safari vehicles. All canters and jeeps reached the park's exit gate at 5.30 pm. The forest guards radioed to confirm that the Zone 4 tigress was now sitting around the lake. So close, yet so far. So that was our first ever game drive in tiger country. Thrilling; but the tiger, as well as beginners luck, evaded us.

Overnight: Ranthambore Regency

2nd Game Drive: Zone 3

We booked our next game drive through our hotel. On Saturday morning 6.45 am, the canter picked us up from our resort. The cold conveniently pierced the five layers of our clothing we wore. We passed the Mughal gate and this time drove straight towards Zone 3 at the foot of Ranthambore fort.

The forest guards at Zone 3 gate informed us that a male tiger passed through the area an hour ago. I tended to dismiss the alert as an excitement management tactic. But ten meters into the drive, we spotted huge pug marks of a male. The trail though was lost soon. We passed Padam Talao and Rajhbagh Lake on our left. A full moon shone in the morning sky and reflected in the placid waters of the lake. In the east, the sun was still rising behind the dry branches of Dhok trees.

For the next two hours, we made several loops in the hills of Zone 3 in search of tigers. I held up some biscuit crumbs in my palm and Indian tree pie, a very friendly bird, flew down from the branches to peck fragments from it. We stopped at Malik Talao for a while. Deers, sambhars, wild boars, antelopes, crocodiles and several species of birds enjoyed the morning light here. At 10.30 am, we returned to our resort. The score: Two drives and zero sightings.

3rd Game Drive: Zone 5

Zone 5 turned out to be a rather boring ride. Our rickety canter tumbled on a rutty track that kept going straight and nowhere else. When you seek something desperately, you start seeing it in spirits. That afternoon, in our third (and then final) safari, I was seeing lizards in twigs, deer antlers in tree branches and crocodiles in dead trunks. My inebriated eyes saw fauna everytime I turned my head. There was no sign of tiger anywhere. At some point during the ride, and I don't know what came over me at the moment, I shouted "Woh! Tiger!"

Everyone in the canter, including our driver and naturalist, held their breath and looked in the direction my finger pointed. "Where is it?" several hushed. Even before I could say another word, the driver was reversing the canter. And after that came a loud thud! We bumped into the canter that was following us. Everyone returned back to reality. It was just a false alarm and some dry yellow grass. I was so embarassed -- I could have melted away and vanished that very minute.

The woh-tiger false alarm was the only thing of any consequence on our dud safari in Zone 5. We spotted a few nilgais, sambhars, deers, langurs, a crocodile, and several birds and then meekly came back to our resort. Three drives and zero sightings. Any hope of spotting one of the "42 tigers" of Ranthambore went up in thin smoke for us.

Overnight: Train

4th Game Drive: Zone 3

After the three safaris on Friday and Saturday, we had not planned any on Sunday. But a surprise offer of having an entire jeep to ourselves on Sunday morning made us change our minds. Our impromptu fourth safari decision costed us Rs. 3000 (which, we realized at the end of the drive, was worth every rupee).

The Sunday dawn was damp and misty. The air was heavy from last night's drizzle. Arjun Rathore, our naturalist and Imran, our driver picked us up in an olive colored open Gypsy. Now I am tempted to say that canters are as much fun as jeeps, but that would be untrue. The Gypsys are faster, quieter and more agile. You can cover more park, including the less explored areas, in lesser time. And we were loving it.

We drove past the lakes of Zone 3 and headed towards the hills. Arjun realized this was our fourth drive without a sighting. "You've seen the deers and sambhars. Let's just focus on tracing the tiger in this safari," he resolved.

T17, T18 and T19 were the three tigresses that held territory in Zone 3. After losing all tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve, T18 had been moved out of Ranthambore to Sariska in hope of reviving the tiger population there. T17 prowled the lakes while T19 ruled the hills. Luck seemed to be on our side when we spotted recent pug marks of T19 on freshly moist pink mudroads. Imran stepped on the gas and hit the corners, while adrenaline hit our heads. The road reeled under the jeep leaving behind tyre tracks. Boulders, dhok trees and cacti flashed by us as we held on tightly to the jeep. Our arms must've had goosebumps under the several layers of clothing we were wearing. We could feel the rush as Arjun and Imran chased the pug marks.

A few minutes later, the pug marks left the road and walked into the forest. Pooh! She was gone.

We chased T19 to the top of the hill at the edge of the park but couldn't spot her. Arjun was so sad that he offered to teach us bird-spotting. "I'll show you how to spot at least ten different species of birds." We spotted Indian tree pie, Kingfisher, Peacock, Great painted stork, Snakebird darter, Owl, Serpent eagle, Parakeet, Teetar, Spotted owlette, Black shouldered kite, Egret, Ibis, Little ringed plover, Common teal duck, Black winged stilt, Collared dove, Common mynah, Gray heron, Black tailed godwit; and an hour later, we idled on the banks of Rajbagh lake. A sambhar waded into the water for his favorite aquatic vegatation while a crocodile lurked dangerously close. The rest of the park vehicles had left for the exit gate.

Suddenly Imran hushed us and strained his ears. We could hear abrupt cranks of gear shifts and engine roars. This was followed by clouds of dust rising up in the distance. Imran started the engine and turned the jeep around with a skid. "T4," he said. The next 60 seconds were Sherlock Holmes style deduction.

Imran heard the vehicles at the exit gate make a U-turn. The dust clouds confirmed that they were racing back into the park. This meant that someone spotted a tiger and radioed it to the guards at the gate. We had seen one forest guard near Malik Talao with a radio. It was probably him. Malik Talao was the territory of T4, a four year old male.

We braked at Malik Talao and other vehicles lined up behind us soon. These was a collective hush as we looked for any activity in grass on the other side. Deers and sambhars grazed in the lake. There was a nervous tension in the air. False alarms and cries were likely to be triggered off any second. Everyone was waiting for a glimpse of the tiger. Just then, the sambars lifted their heads from the water and stood still like hell froze over. The deers leaped out of the lake and ran away into the woods. The sambars exited next.

Within four minutes, all animals had vanished. Everything was still. Suddenly, a terrified deer and a wild boar come galloping out of the grass. No sign of tiger though. And then there was a loud shriek and a boar started jumping from one side to another in the grass. About thirty seconds later it came out and sprinted into the woods. What we witnessed was a partial hunt - we saw the preys scurry but were unlucky not see the predator.

We had run out of safari time and had to rush back to the park exit. Our quest for a tiger sighting remained unfulfilled.

The best day to spot a tiger would be a weekday in mid-April. Weekdays would see fewer tourists in Ranthambore. The oppresive April heat would force the beast to stay close to water bodies, which themselves wouldn't be many. And the decidious forest would have dried completely enabling sighting upto longer distances.

That said, a trip to a tiger reserve is not about sighting alone. To breathe the same air as the tiger is incredible enough!

The Ranthambore Fort

On Sunday late afternoon, we made the customary trip to Ranthambore fort. It is the second largest fort in Rajasthan after Chittorgarh. Ranthambore fort was an important theatre in the 12th and 13th century battles between the Delhi Sultans and Chauhan Rajputs. Today, it is famous for its Hindu and Jain temples - Ganesh, Shiva, Ramlalaji, Sumathinath and Sambhavanath.

The Ranthambore fort is inside the park. The public is allowed access to the fort (and its temples) but not to the park zones unless you are on a safari. For Rs. 450, we were able to hire a taxi that took us to the fort and back. Our driver was a pleasant tell-taler but also an extreme sceptic. "There are no more than 5-6 tigers in the park," he claimed. "They all get poached and killed. What can forest guards with a lathi do?"

Rising 700 feet above the surroundings, the fort presented a majestic sight of the park. The lakes stretched flat and the hills rolled up and down to form the Aravali ranges. The trees and bushes jutted out of the landscape and occasional canter and jeeps, like tiny matchboxes, kicked up clouds of golden dust.

Inside, the fort stretched for several square kilometers. Amid litter, langurs and abandoned ruins of yesteryear palaces, hordes of pilgrims walked briskly for their rendezvous with Lord Ganesha. On a Saturday and Sunday, as many as ten thousand would stomp the place. The palace of Hammir was one of the few significant buildings that wasn't in ruins, but it was locked away under ASI's key.

That night, we checked out from the resort and took a train from Sawai Madhopur to Bombay that involved waitlisted e-tickets (which get cancelled automatically), a half-mad TT, railway judicial magistrates of Jaipur and Kota and much drama. 10 am next morning, our jobs awaited us in a bright nosiy warm Bombay.

The Tigers are Burning

"Forty two" is the golden number all park officials, drivers and naturalists would spurt out when asked how many tigers are there in Ranthambore park (2009 census). But that's on paper and paper-tigers are worth nothing. After four drives and many small conversations, we tried to do the zone-wise math that would add up to 42. Sadly, we could never go beyond 20. Several parties have a vested interest in projecting the higher figure of 42. But the sceptic in me feels it's closer to 20 than to 42.

Poaching and human-animal conflict have ensured that spotting a tiger in the wild has become a rare experience. In Jan 2010, four tigers died in the Jim Corbett National Park. The tigers of Sunderban frequently venture into human habitats and have to be ferried back to the wild. The officials at Sariska have finally agreeed that the tiger population is now zero. (Edit: In Mar 2010, two tiger cubs were found dead in Ranthambore, allegedly poisoned by the locals.)

The conservation status of the Bengal Tiger is EN (Endangered) and deteriorating. And I have very little hope that it won't be EW (Extinct in the Wild ) in a few decades. That means our grandchildren will never be able to see a tiger in the wild. A species disappearing in our lifetime is a very scary and sad thought.

What can we do? May be nothing.

Or may be we can do a little. We can start off by traveling more to our national parks in our holidays. By spending our money in the local economy, we may be able to reduce the human-animal conflict. By telling our friends and family about our trips, we may be able to spread more awareness about tigers.

We may not be able to stop the extinction, but we may be able to delay it.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Season - Oct-June / Game drives - 0600-1030 hrs and 1430-1830 hrs / Game drive booking - Gypsy (seats 6) Rs. 429 and Canter (seats 20) Rs. 334 at Rajasthan Wild Life / Trains - BCT JP Express from Bombay to Sawai Madhopur; August Kranti Rajdhani from Sawai Madhopur to Bombay / Stay - Ranthambore Regency, RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori (+91 7462 220495), RTDC Hotel Vinayak (+91 7462 221333) / Learn - Tiger, Bengal Tiger, Project Tiger, Conservation Status, WWF India

Tags: India, Wildlife

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