Monday, July 2, 2012

The Fabled land of Tigers

Ranthambore - The very name evokes the images of striped cats langorously looking into cameras with a countless Tourists in Safari vehicles scrambling to get that WOW shot in the background. The ubiquitous image of a tiger on the tracks with at least a dozen vehicles in the tow was all too entrenched in our minds, thanks to Facebook and Flickr.
So when Ateesh and I were looking for a weekend getaway near Gurgaon, Ranthambore despite being close was never on top of our minds. We have always found ourselves more comfortable beyond the ultra popular tourist circuits. Somehow incessant commercialisation of our national parks and sanctuaries to the point of being loud, predictable and hackneyed puts us off.
But in this case, in talking to friends and family who had been there, we got convinced that despite it being a fairly popular tourist spot and a favourite tiger hunting ground (with cameras mind you :) for nearly half of the tiger hungry foreign tourists to India (The other half rush invariably to Corbett), the place has retained it's magic and population of it's most precious creatures on top of the food chain more or less healthy.

So, it was decided. We'll go to Ranthambore. Then came the task of bookings. Though Ranthambore has a range of hotels, both budget and luxury, the key decision factor was safari bookings. There are a number of private players who will do Jeep or Canter booking for you. But if you are game for a little hard work yourself, you can book them via and save your little pennies for tourist souveniers. The website is a little primitive and you may have to be patient, as it times out relentlessly in your face or refuses to book safari during the day time even if the seats are available on screen. But my own experience is that night times work the best for bookings. A few attempts after 11pm worked well for us and we were able to book for 4 Safaris spread over 3 days. List of banks for online payment is limited, so we paid by credit card which wasn't too bad.
For those who are new to Safari jargon, Canters are heavy open vehicles and can seat 20 people while Jeep can seat 6 people. Jeeps are available in both shared and non-shared modes with obvious price difference tilting on higher end for the latter.

Both have their own advantages. While you have can have a better vantage point (high up) in a Canter for viewing the wildlife, Jeep provides more manoverability and flexibility. Having a Jeep also increases your probability of finding more people with similar interests as yours. Having a consensus in a 20 seater can be a challenge, but luckily for us, all our Canter trips proved to be the best. We had very patient and accomondating CCs (Canter companions :) on each trip.

To reach Ranthambore we set off for Sawai Madhopur Stn by an overnight express train from Nizamuddin Stn. Sawai Madhopur is the nearest Railway Stn. But more than reaching the destination itself, it was the train journey that kept us enthralled. In the wee hrs of morning, train passes through rural Rajasthan with unending grey, brown fields on either sides interspersed with small hutments and cattle and people alike, coming out for their morning ablutions. The sheer excitement of being in the tiger country started playing tricks on our minds. We kept wondering if we just spotted a leopard on the far off hillocks. Of course that was not to be. One doesn't see leopards and tigers anymore like that.
Anyways, you can know some more about the Sawai Madhopur town itself here

Morning at Sawai Madhopur was pleasant and we decided to have tea at Station itself. Station is sparse, clean and well structured with friendly people. In fact my general experience with rajasthani people is that they are generally simple in their living style and very rooted in traditions. A Peculiar announcement kept repeating in a loop that the 100ml Tea on station was for INR 3/- but that it was served in 120ml (or was it 150, I forget) cups and charged more, which I thought was a very encouraging way to warn Tourists of unscrupulous vendors.

There were flocks of House Swifts flying over the station while a Brown Rockchat looked on. Green Bee Eaters were waking up too. We reached our hotel Vinayak that is run by RTDC. There is only one main road that is lined with hotels on either sides. All variations of the word "Tiger" can be found in the names of these hotels.

We first decided to visit the Ranthambore Fort. It's a formidable structure with a strong history spanning generations of dynasties and sects, primary amongst them being Chauhans. History notwithstanding, the present as with many historical places in India, is rooted in religous fervour. There is a famous Ganesh temple at one end of the fort with a few stalls selling Kachori, Laddoos and other rural sweetmeats in the vicinity. Chestnut-shouldered Petronias abound in this area as do Rufous Treepies. Rufous Treepies of Ranthambore have a cult status within the park and are probably the most flamboyant species of the town. Practically everywhere we went, within the fort or the park, in the backyards of our hotel or simply in the restaurents, Treepies were just everywhere. With a paragraph already devoted to them, I am going to spend no more words on Rufous Treepies of Ranthambore. Suffice it to say, Rufous Treepies are to Ranthambore what House Crows are to Gurgaon.

It was interesting to observe local folks wearing variety of spectacular colours adding much needed brightness to the otherwise dull coloured but solid walls of Fort. At one spot, we saw a group of locals - both humans and monkeys, eating and drinking under a big tree, beating the scorching heat together. The man-human cohabitation is evidently inherent in the culture here.
Another interesting and abundant bird seen was Crested Bunting.

Our first Safari was in the evening of Day 1 in a Canter. Starting with a Little and a Pond Heron and a White-throated Kingfisher on the sides of a small waterbody enroute the Fort, we saw some good birds within the park. Great Thick-knee, Darter, Little-ringed Plover, River Tern, Painted, Woolly and Asian Open-billed Storks, Painted Spurfowl (which we again saw on Day 3), 2 Long-billed Vultures hovering above, Many Eurasian Golden Orioles etc. Many of these birds were seen on Day 2 and 3 as well.

The park is divided into several zones by Forest Department for the sake of keeping order amongst zillions who throng to the park everyday. On Day 1, we were allotted Zone 2 where without much difficulty, we spotted T19 - The tigeress which had had cubs recently and which is one of the three daughters of famed T16 aka Machli. After a few tantalising views from behind the bushes, the tigeress walked towards a small man made waterhole (and there are several of these in the park) to drink and cool itself off from the searing heat. Grey Partridges roamed near it freely as did Great Tits and Red-vented Bulbuls. Of course, it's another matter they were virtually invisible to Tiger hungry Junta. A handsome Shikra high looked perplexed watching the Tigress and the tourists, almost ready to kill each other for that wow shot.
On sighting a tiger and the one which is not within the best shooting range, human beings can display their most primitive instincts. Folks literally stepped over any and everything and climbed over one another and manouevered themselves at such odd positions within Canters and Jeeps, that at one point I didn't know who needed more degrees of evolution and who was worth a picture - Tiger or the Homo Sapiens.

On Day 2 morning, we went into Zone 6 which looked very forlorn but Green. The animals weren't abundant here as in other zones. Not many Sambars, Cheetals but I found my lifer in an Indian Pitta calling out early morning. Many other Crested Buntings, Red-rumped Swallows and a lone Asian-brown Flycatcher were seen in this range. There is a Tiger Den fairly out in the open in this Zone but no Tigers. The rocky habitat is good for birds though.

In the evening, we decided to do Zone 2/3 again to increase chances of spotting more tigers and yes, we got lucky again. We actually persuaded our Jeep driver to get Zone2 or 3 and not 6 ot 7. This is generally not in the hands of drivers is what we were told but I guess like all other things Indian, some influencing factors do exist.

On Day 2 evening, we spotted a resting Tiger and a Nesting Nigh Heron side by side in Zone 3. Several Paradise Flycatchers in rufous morph and Common Kingfisher flew around. Darters, Storks and an Oriental Honey Buzzard and Spotted Owlet were the highlights.

On Day 3, we did one more Canter Safari with the dullest of all Guides we had so far been with. He had no interest in showing or stoppign for birds and not only did he not know much about birds or animals, he also lacked the enthusiasm to stand up and show around. Pretty disapppointing guide but an encouraging set of tourists in this trip. A group of birders from Gurgaon including photographers was a bonus. Highlight was a Stork-billed Kingfisher and a gorgeous white morph Paradise Flycatcher flying right in front of our vehicle like an angel.
Finally with a few more hrs left in hand and having had our fill of the park and it's birds and tigers, we decided to skip evening Safari and instead went to checkout a small temple next to Vinayak. It's a temple on a small hillock with about 50 steps leading upto the temple with rocky scrubs and small trees on either sides and small stream which in this season was mostly dry. It's good to watch birds by sitting on the sides of steps. We observed a flock of Small Minivets and a Black-rumped Flameback here. Several Great Tits at very close quarters can be found here in addition to Green Bee-Eaters and Asian Koels.

Before I wind down, it's worth mentioning the bird watching within the hotel campus of Vinayak. Being a Govt. run hotel, it commands a bigger real estate than many of the smaller private hotels but of course services are basic here. The staff is friendly and the food is simple but preparations are tasty. The campus is quite good for watching birds and without even venturing out, one can easily spot 15 - 20 species without much effort, depending upon the time of the year. The backwall of Vinayak borders Zone 1 of the Park and there's a waterhole created by Hotel staff on the other side of the wall, attracting a wide variety of birds and mammals. We spent several hrs at this water hole watching birds and a flock of Spotted Deers at a close range. Prominent birds seen in Vinayak were Common Iora, White-browed Fantail, Coppersmith Barbet, Asian Koel, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Tickell's Flycatcher, Common Hoopoe, Eurasian Cuckoo, White-bellied Drongo, Small Minivets and Yellow-footed Green Pigeons.

Satisfied, we headed back to Sawai Madhopur Stn to catch our night train to Delhi and realised quickly that it's better to dine out in your hotel. Eating options in and around the station are limited and really less than basic. It's an anti foodie's-paradise.

Finally, as we sat in our train, passing by the dark fields on either side, I kept pondering over the limitless tourist opportunities that a few dozen tigers in a sleepy hamlet can create while the big cats themselves remain happily oblivious to all the Big Fat Tiger Tamasha created around them. So long as, these regal animals are around, we have our chance to travel and see them in their habitat and feel the awesome luck we have to be alive during this time, when majestic Bengal Tigers live.

Complete list of birds seen is below
SpeciesScientific Name
Grey FrancolinFrancolinus pondicerianus
Jungle Bush Quail (Lifer)Perdicula asiatica
Painted SpurfowlGalloperdix lunulata
Indian PeafowlPavo cristatus
Yellow-crowned WoodpeckerDendrocopos mahrattensis
Black-rumped FlamebackDinopium benghalense
Coppersmith BarbetMegalaima haemacephala
Common HoopoeUpupa epops
Green Bee-eaterMerops orientalis
Stork-billed Kingfisher (Lifer)Halcyon capensis
White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensis
Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis
Common Hawk CuckooCuculus varius
Eurasian CuckooCuculus canorus
Asian KoelEudynamys scolopaceus
Greater CoucalCentropus sinensis
Plum-headed ParakeetPsittacula cyanocephala
House SwiftApus affinis
Spotted OwletAthene brama
Spotted DoveStreptopelia chinensis
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto
Yellow-footed Green PigeonTreron phoenicopterus
White-breasted WaterhenAmaurornis phoenicurus
Oriental Honey-buzzardPernis ptilorhyncus
Black-shouldered KiteElanus caeruleus
Black KiteMilvus migrans
Egyptian VultureNeophron percnopterus
Long-billed VultureGyps indicus
ShikraAccipiter badius
Little Ringed PloverCharadrius dubius
Great Thick-knee (Lifer)Esacus recurvirostris
River TernSterna aurantia
Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis
DarterAnhinga melanogaster
Little CormorantPhalacrocorax niger
Little EgretEgretta garzetta
Grey HeronArdea cinerea
Great EgretCasmerodius albus
Indian Pond HeronArdeola grayii
Little HeronButorides striata
Black-headed IbisThreskiornis melanocephalus
Painted StorkMycteria leucocephala
Woolly-necked StorkCiconia episcopus
Great TitParus major
Indian Pitta (Lifer)Pitta brachyura
Oriental White-eyeZosterops palpebrosus
Lesser WhitethroatSylvia curruca
Large Grey BabblerTurdoides malcolmi
Jungle BabblerTurdoides striata
White-eared BulbulPycnonotus leucotis
Red-vented BulbulPycnonotus cafer
Red-rumped SwallowHirundo daurica
Common TailorbirdOrthotomus sutorius
Crested BuntingMelophus lathami
Ashy-crowned Sparrow LarkEremopterix griseus
Grey-breasted PriniaPrinia hodgsonii
Ashy PriniaPrinia socialis
House SparrowPasser domesticus
Chestnut-shouldered PetroniaPetronia xanthocollis
Purple SunbirdCinnyris asiaticus
Common IoraAegithina tiphia
Asian Paradise-flycatcherTerpsiphone paradisi
Black DrongoDicrurus macrocercus
White-bellied DrongoDicrurus caerulescens
White-browed FantailRhipidura aureola
Eurasian Golden OrioleOriolus oriolus
Large CuckooshrikeCoracina macei
Small MinivetPericrocotus cinnamomeus
Common WoodshrikeTephrodornis pondicerianus
Rufous TreepieDendrocitta vagabunda
Large-billed CrowCorvus macrorhynchos
Bay-backed ShrikeLanius vittatus
Brahminy StarlingSturnus pagodarum
Asian Pied StarlingSturnus contra
Common MynaAcridotheres tristis
Oriental Magpie RobinCopsychus saularis
Indian RobinSaxicoloides fulicatus
Brown Rock-chatCercomela fusca
Tickell's Blue FlycatcherCyornis tickelliae
Asian Brown Flycatcher (Lifer)Muscicapa dauurica


  1. Hotel Vinayak should be appreciated more for the non veg it served all the time, one of the plusses for me on the trip. The accommodation was good and the neighborhood better.

    The tiger we saw on day 2 was T-24 , a male, quite uninterested in 100+ people shooting him with their cameras of all kinds. It was quite interesting to see many people exclaim even at peacocks in between, indicating that even sightings of such common birds are uncommon in the concrete jungles most visitors live in.

  2. Agreed Ateesh. It was quite clear that lot of tourists had not seen peacocks, Magpie Robins or even Rufous Treepies in their neighbourhood. Pity our so called urban development.

  3. Indeed a very well written report Soma!! Yes Rajasthani are traditionally simple . They love all colors of Mother Nature.

    1. Very true Dr. SP. Their simplicity is evident in their behaviour, responses, interaction. I hope it remains preserved in future generations as well.

  4. Very nice write up...and Swaimadhopur does have its own charm...the Fort...the lakes and the baba who lives with tigers in the temple in jungle...

    1. Thanks Miti. I quite liked the quaintness of Sawai Madhopur town. Nice place to be in.

  5. As usual a very well written report......enjoyed it... For a change happy to see some some species that I had already seen were lifers for you :-) [the rare advantage of being a south birder]

    1. Thanks Nitin...yes, in fact I felt almost embarassed mentioning Indian Pitta as Lifer but so be it :) There is always a first time.

  6. Lovely and detailed report.. enjoyed a lot... felt myself there as a part of your story.

    1. Thanks Chandra for demonstrating the patience :)

  7. Lovely report as usual .... Soma !! Indeed as Ateesh said above ... the tigers at Ranthambore do look uninterested in the people around ... ( not that it interests us to let them get interested in us ... unduely ... )... and the whole thing looks more of a circus at times .... with people wandering around to get better pictures.
    :-) ... could have liked more illustration of the dull guide's disinterest !

    1. Thanks for the patience Srini..Dull guide was too dull to elicit my interest in describing him..I would have fallen asleep :)

  8. Lovely report! Makes me long to visit Ranthambore again--for the birds as well as the tigers. I once visited the park with the erstwhile director of Rajasthan Tourism, who was the husband of a dear friend. Even HE could not produce a tiger for us. Next time I had better go with YOU!

    1. Hey Rose - Next time let's go in June/July. Will have abundant chance. Some of the folks who were in other canters even saw cubs which we failed to sight. But I can tell you the sight of one tiger with a hundred tourists watching him drink, eat, pee is really a sorry image to watch.