India’s Sustainable Tiger Safaris

by Mariellen Ward,

sustainable travel

Tigers. Hypnotic gold eyes, elegant stealth, a flash of orange and black in the jungle. Can you imagine a more gloriously beautiful creature? A greater symbol of nature’s majesty?

Tigers have captured man’s fascination since the dawn of time. They’re found in ancient cave paintings, featured in mythology and even associated with the gods: The great Hindu goddess Durga is usually depicted astride a tiger.

The tiger is also the symbol and national animal of India. Not surprising, since India is home to about 60 per cent of the world’s wild tiger population. India is also home to 39 protected tiger reserves, located throughout the subcontinent.

Though I had been to India on four lengthy trips, travelling from one end of the country to another, I still had not been to a single tiger park, and had never seen a tiger in the wild. It was about time.

In March 2011, after attending the International Tiger Summit in Delhi, I took the train to Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Ranthambore is one of the country’s premier tiger parks, with evocative ancient ruins, a steady tiger population and close proximity to the capital.

My first day in Sawai Madhopur, I interviewed Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, the director of Tiger Watch — a local, independent organization founded to protect the tigers of Ranthambore — and went into the park for a guided tour of the ruins of Ranthambore Fort and an active, though ancient, Ganesh temple. My appetite whetted, I was all ready for my first tiger safari.

From Dr. Khandal, and the Tiger Summit, I learned that while the tiger population in India had inched up — from a shocking low of 1, 411 in 2006 to about 1, 706 in 2010 — tiger habitat was decreasing at an alarming rate. This, plus poaching, an increasing human population and other factors, makes the future uncertain for wild tigers in India. Time seems to be running out for tigers, which is another reason I was anxious to see one in the wild, while it’s still possible.

The morning of my safari, I was as excited as a child. A driver and guide picked up me and Satish, the owner of my guest-house The Farm Villa and a former Ranthambore guide, just after dawn. I literally jumped into the gypsy (open jeep).

As we entered the park, it was still chilly. I was quickly mesmerized by the evocative scenery, crumbling stone work, dazzling birds, silvery langurs. The forest was dry and almost desert-like, which made site lines excellent.

We drove around our assigned zone, following leads and hunches as our guides tried to put us on the trail of tiger. We saw all kinds of birds and animals, including spotted deer, sambar a massive crocodile dozing on the bank of a lake and flashes of jewel-toned kingfishers as they flew overhead. The soft morning warmed up, the scenery was beautiful and it was a delightful way to spend a day — but still we had not seen a tiger.

All at once, ahead, we noticed that a convoy of vehicles was gathered and we learned that an aging female tiger had been spotted. We joined the group for a while, but gave up when it seemed we were too late. Later that morning, we heard a large male was seen crossing the road near the exit, so we made for the place and waited there, too.

In truth, I enjoyed my leisurely drive through the park, which is gorgeous; but grew tired of the chase. We were trying too hard and I felt it took away from the experience of just being there.

Finally, we had to leave, our time was up (a restricted number of vehicles are allowed in for a set period of time, to help preserve the balance in the park). As we drove out, I felt a little sad, I would have liked to see a tiger. But … I still had the excitement and pleasure of seeing a tiger in the wild for the first time ahead of me. And I’d had a wonderful morning. It was most definitely a meanigful adventure travel experience.

So, though I was able to feel some satisfaction in the “not seeing, ” I also saw a warning.