“We’ve been here all week,” say the first couple we meet in Sawai Madhopur, when we ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind.
“Yesterday, we saw some tracks,” adds a woman who travelled here after an intensive yoga course.
The safari guide shrugs. “Nothing is guaranteed.”
Tigers. In this dusty, two-street town in Rajasthan, it’s slightly embarrassing to see so many people focused on one big cat. Especially when you’re one of them. Yet with only 4000 tigers left alive (across the whole world, not just in India,) tiger-fever is easier to understand.
Tigers decorate the safari jeeps, their pictures cover the hotel walls. They’re almost all you’ll find in the guidebooks and they dominate conversations between locals and tourists alike.
Tigers, tigers, tigers. Have you seen one? Do you think you will?
Sawai Madhopur obsesses over tigers because it sits on the edge of the Ranthambore National Park, a key part of the initial Project Tiger conservation programme. Sadly, over the years it has become ensnared in its own poaching controversies, but it remains one of the best places in Rajasthan to spot a tiger. Safaris leave twice a day, once in the morning and then again at dusk, and the number of vehicles entering the park is strictly limited.
Yet as the safari guide rightly pointed out, “Nothing is guaranteed.”
Despite the tourist board rhetoric, many people do spend a week here without seeing a tiger. A colleague, Wild Junket, contacted me on twitter recently to ask whether or not it was even worth the trip.
I didn’t have as many words at my disposal then as I do now, but my answer was… “Yes.”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”
Tigers star in the line-up, tigers get all the glory, but… the truth is that Ranthambore bursts with wildlife, with velvet-purple lakes and monkeys swinging through sunset. Owls hoot softly from the trees and wild deer bolt through the long and golden grass. Old, abandoned forts cast shadows over the valley below…
If tigers had never existed (and at the rate we’re going, they soon won’t), then I strongly believe that people would still travel to see this park.
Ranthambore is beautiful. Its twisted trees, crisp dried landscape and its timeless feel deserve a visit. If you manage to see the queen of the jungle, that’s just the crowning glory.
As for me? Did my dream of tigers come true? You’ll have to read this article to find out.