A year ago, with great excitement and a little trepidation, I set off on my first trip to India, more specifically to Ranthambhore, with high hopes of getting a few images of the beautiful and endangered Bengal tiger.
I was not disappointed. If anything, I was surprised at how many photographic opportunities I had with these cats. My first drive in the dry and dusty April conditions produced no tigers, but my second produced an excellent sighting of the well known Tigress, Noor, and the first picture I ever took of a tiger! I was essentially speechless, and those who know me know it takes a lot to make the words stop.
Not only did Noor pose beautifully, she also led us to her cubs, who were around a year or so old at the time. They lay in a natural spring together, and played, with one cub reluctant to get its paws wet, and the other a comfortable bather. I still remember this sighting as if it was yesterday, along with the emotions that accompanied it. This year I noticed that the path to the spring had been closed off, which means it’s unlikely I will ever get an image like this again.
This year, I entered zone 2 anticipating a lot more of Noor. As it happened, I only saw her once on the trip, but I did get a few wonderful sightings of her grown cubs, who are now independent and massive!
We spent one full afternoon in the presence of Noor’s male cub as he relaxed in the shade near a waterhole, blatantly ignoring the many vehicles who crowded around to see him.
(As a point of interest, this is one of the worst parts of a visit to India: the vehicle numbers and the manner in which many of them conduct themselves. It’s not worth going in to too much detail, as there are many reasons for this - most notably I imagine is the expectation that everyone needs to see a tiger or they won’t tip (and the guides and drivers are paid very little by the park, so rely on tips). That said, you can have a magical sighting to yourself, of which I had a few. You can also have a guide who knows the tigers and their behaviour well, and can predict where to drive, park and wait, and when to just watch and listen. I had guides like this, specifically chosen on both of my trips, and I promise it has a huge influence on the quality of your Ranthambhore experience. Don't let the vehicle numbers put you off a visit. This park is spectacular, and the tiger viewing can be out of this world. To see these endangered cats roaming wild and free in the rocky landscape is something you can't put a price on!).
Tigers have an uncanny ability to act as though you don’t exist, ignoring the shouts and arguments which break out between vehicles. They rest very easily, knowing they reign supreme in their environment, with no real natural predators. Most of the African cats remain wary when resting, ever alert to sounds which could signal the arrival of a threat. Tigers sleep as though dead. This gives you a good opportunity to listen to their heavy breathing and admire the sheer size of their paws as they roll around, presumably enjoying dreams of chasing sambal and chittal.
For our last morning in the park, we were assigned zone 1, and after half an hour of driving we came across a very dead blue bull antelope. He had clearly died of natural causes, in a small gully right next to the road. We drove a bit further, observing a number of tracks in the road, but no tiger. Not one to give up, Suri suggested we check another waterhole before coming back to follow up on the tiger we knew must be around. It turned out to be a very good decision, when as a result of the decision I saw my first Indian leopard! It wasn’t as relaxed as some of the cats I’ve photographed, but it was new… and then when we returned we found another of Noor’s cubs, a female, tucking in to the antelope kill in some beautiful early morning light. The kind of light that makes a tigers eyes burn with fire. Not a bad way to spend the last morning in the park, a park which is fast becoming one of my favourite places on earth to visit!
Have a look at the power in this young female’s muscles as she tries to drag the huge antelope to some shade. A blue bull can easily weigh 200kg, and this female tiger is likely around half that, so she is pretty powerful.