The sun has barely cleared the hilltops when our open-topped jeep passes through the entrance to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India. On the road ahead of us, groups of worshippers, the women clad in colorful, graceful saris, wend their way up the hill in pilgrimage to a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh. Above them, the majestic 10th century Fort of Ranthambore rises 700 feet, keeping watch over the surrounding landscape. We are on a pilgrimage of our own, to photograph Bengal tigers in their natural habitat. ( See our previous blog). However, tigers are elusive creatures appearing only sporadically. Fortunately, the abundance and rich diversity of other wildlife and birdlife in the park provide hours of photography in one of India’s biggest and most famous national parks.
Sitting on the edge of a plateau between the Banas and Chambal Rivers, on the edge of the Thar Desert, the park was once the exclusive hunting preserve of the Maharajahs of Jaipur. Ruins of ancient stone structures with arches and domes are scattered about the park, all that remains of human rule. The most famous of these ruins, the Rajbagh (Ruler’s Garden), sits on the edge of the lake of the same name. Once the retreat of royalty, the ruins now are used as a vantage point by kings (and queens) of the animal kingdom, the Bengal Tiger. They sometimes sit in the windows of the Rajbagh, stalking the sambar deer, cooling themselves in the lake waters.
You can also find them wandering around the majestic Fort of Ranthambore that dominates the skyline. The fort, which is one of the oldest in the country, once guarded the passage to central India and has a rich history of legends, battles, conquests, victory, and defeat. Today it is home to troops of monkeys who sit on the ramparts watching the world below.
After passing through the main entrance and second control point, our twice daily “game” rides take us through different areas of the park where the scenery is ever-changing. Open savannah with low growing bushes and grass lead to steep escarpments, narrow, rocky gorges, and massive rock formations. Farther inside the park thick forests dominate.
Although the tiger is the most sought-after sight in the park, with over 272 species of birds and 29 other mammals, the opportunities for photographers are endless. Peacocks by the hundreds dot the area, the males displaying their feathers to attract the hens. They are as plentiful as sparrows are elsewhere, their raucous call punctuating the air. The curious Rufous Treepie follows visitors around, sitting on branches overhead Given the opportunity, it will steal food right out of your hand. Flocks of green parrots flit from branch to branch while birds of prey like honey buzzards and osprey survey the area for their next meal.
Along the edge of a stream, a “mugger” or marsh crocodile suns itself on the bank, waiting for some unsuspecting deer to get too close. It will grab the animal around the neck, dragging it down to drown. Then it sits in the water with only its eyes protruding, guarding its prize until the flesh is soft enough for the mugger to rip open.
Sambar deer, their coats molting in the heat are present throughout the park. Herds of spotted deer, also known as Chital, include numerous males with majestic six point antlers. These are shed annually and can be seen in the undergrowth around the park. However, removing anything from Ranthambore is illegal. Nilgai antelope (the male of the species is also known as a Blue Bull because of its coloring) are the largest in Asia. They are very shy, camouflaging themselves with the bushes as they strip leaves with their long raspy tongues. Finally, if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of the rare chinkara (or Indian gazelle), wending its way over the rocks to a watering hole.
Langur monkeys, many with babies attached to their bellies, scramble up trees and rocks or sit by the side of the road watching you watching them. They function as an alarm system for the park animals, screeching a warning if they spot a tiger or leopard on the move. As you drive through the park, you will notice giant red mounds around the base of some trees. These are termite nests. favorites of the sloth bears, who dig out the dirt to slurp up the ants with their long tongues.
Ranthambore Park is also rich in plant life, with over 300 species identified. The most beautiful of these is the giant banyan tree sacred of the Hindus as the resting place for the God Krishna and the tree of immortality. The tree is a complex system of aerial roots that grow downwards until they meet the soil where they anchor themselves. The second oldest banyan tree in India is in Ranthambore Park.
In Ranthambore you don’t just “see” the wildlife, you experience every sound and smell. As our guide tells us one day, “You must listen to the forest for it has many secrets to tell.” It is also a park filled with surprises. On our final drive, just as we are about to leave the park, our guide spots a leopard, sitting high on a cliffside, watching monkeys. It is almost as if he is saying, “Right, you’ve had your fun, now get out of my park and let me get on with hunting.”
IF YOU GO
A visa is required for travel to India. It can be obtained from an Indian consulate or embassy. Most embassies now employ an on-line application form that must be completed. In the US go to http://indiavisa.travisaoutsourcing.com for more information. Check with your local health provided for the recommended innoculations. Antimalarial medication is also highly recommended.
Ranthambore is open from October to June; the hottest time to visit is between April and June. The nearest airport is Jaipur, about 60 miles away; the nearest railway station is Sawai Madhopur Junction, 6 miles from the park. There are several daily trains from Delhi (4 hours away). Although you can arrange your visit to Ranthambore Tiger Preserve independently, it is much easier to have a travel company organize it for you. Natural Habitat Adventures Company, cited as the world’s most environmentally responsible tour operator, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), offers a limited number of visits to Ranthambore (tel. +1-303-449-3711.