The three friends from Hong Kong who were our traveling companions on a trip to India are visiting us here in Winnipeg. Yesterday we were reminiscing about our Indian tiger safari.
My husband Dave had his heart set on seeing a wild tiger on our visit to India, so we carefully planned our itinerary to include a safari in Ranthambore National Park. We arrived at Ranthambore late at night and stayed in a rather seedy lodge with frigidly cold rooms, water stained walls and thin fraying bedding. After a less than ideal night of sleep we were awakened at 5 in the morning to have breakfast before departing on our 6 am safari.
The temperature was a chilly 4 degrees as we clambered into our open-air jeep to begin our tiger hunt. I was happy to be wedged in tightly on the rather short seat between Dave and a banker from London named Sidney. The two large men on either side of me blocked the wind and helped keep me warm. I enjoyed chatting with Sidney as our jeep swerved over rutted trails and lurched up steep inclines. Sidney had grown up in Guinea South America, and had moved to England to attend university. He’d gone on to a successful career as a London financier. Sidney had flown into Delhi a few days before to attend the arranged marriage of one of his banking colleagues. He had decided like Dave, that if he was in India anyway, he’d like to see a tiger.
It is not easy to see a tiger in the wild in India. There are only about 1000 left in the whole country. 26 are said to live in Ranthambore National Park. I had read before our visit, that even in areas protected by India’s Tiger Preservation Authority poachers kill tigers. Just two years ago there were 3,000 tigers in India. Apparently China is the main culprit in the decline of the tiger population since tiger organs are used in the making of traditional Chinese medicines. Poachers do a brisk trade in cross border selling of tiger organs. The tiger population is also dwindling because of a lack of forested habitat in which they can live. There are twenty- three villages in the Ranthambore Park and their residents are continually cutting down trees to use for fuel.
We had heard though that Ranthambore was the place where we had the best chance of seeing a Bengal tiger. The park is on the grounds of a former royal hunting ground with a palatial lodge where the Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal used to bring his guests on tiger shooting expeditions. Royalty have continued to visit the area. Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth came hunting there before a ban on killing tigers came into effect in India in the 1970’s.
We spent three and a half hours looking for a tiger. Our jeep stopped several times so our driver could talk to tiger-trackers who roam Ranthambore looking for the elusive beasts. Despite their best advice, the closest we came to seeing a tiger was to see the paw prints of one in the sand. We did however see any number of monkeys, exotic birds, wild boar, various species of deer and even a moose……..but no tigers.
Due to international pressure India has just begun a new initiative to try to increase its tiger population. Hopefully it will be successful so that if Dave returns to India in a few years he will get a chance to see his tiger. A few years may be what I need before I’m ready to embark on another freezing cold pre-dawn safari. If you’d like to volunteer to accompany my husband next time, I’ll gladly give you my seat in the jeep.