Some friends and I went to one of India's best wildlife preservation areas, called Ranthambore. It's in Rajasthan, south of Jaipur. We had a great time, from the train ride down to multiple trips inside the park to taking a 20 minute plane ride back to Delhi from Jaipur. We got a little jittery, however, when we kept missing the tigers. I had been to Ranthambore before with my twin brother, and we had a great time but also saw no tigers. So when we took two trips inside the park and came back with "only" lots of pictures of deer, peacock, and monkeys, well, I braced myself for another round of disappointment.
But on our last trip into the park, we got incredibly lucky. Not only was it peacock mating season (I have never seen so many peacocks strutting their stuff - perhaps 50 males dancing and folding and unfolding their tails) and not only was it a beautiful day in an open forest studded with Mughal ruins, but we saw four tigers!
We began our third trip in by zipping by all the animals we previously would have stopped and stared at - the aforementioned peacocks, langur monkeys (very personable, these guys), "blue bulls", sambar deer, spotted deer, golden orioles, kingfishers, crocodiles, etc. - in order to maximize our tiger searching time. We finally reached a water hole that we thought would afford us our best chance of a sighting. And then we sat. After what seemed an interminable wait in the open-air jeep, watching with eyebrows arched as the male peacocks shouted and danced, the volume of the forest dropped markedly and suddenly. The deer all started looking around, and the peacocks started making a different noise. The langurs started making a hacking, coughing sound. You could hear answering calls from the distance; the alarm was out, and it said the tigers were coming. But still we saw nothing. When we heard more alarm calls from 100 meters away, we fired up the jeep and zipped away down the trail, but still nothing. We returned to the water hole, and waited some more. More jeeps came to join us. The guides huddled. Then without warning there was a roar and everyone jumped in unison, one of those "yes, we all have a little instinct left" moments. The guide said that was a sign the cubs were around, and playing. "That was playing?" was the immediate question.
After a little longer, atiger emerged! Lazily, languidly, she just strolled toward the water, glancing in our direction but without really giving us a second thought, and relaxed in the pool. We all did little tiger dances in the jeep, thrilled to death to be so close to the tiger. Then, one by one, two siblings came out and joined her. We turned into tigerazzi, cameras clicking and whirring away. As stars do, the tigers ignored us. After some soaking, two of the cubs started playing. One dragged the other out of the pool by the scruff of her neck, which the other endured. Very cute, in a 400-pound animal kind of way. Finally, they all wandered away, fur muddy but with stripes still showing. We drove away exulting.
Then, on our way back down the trail, as we were all achatter about seeing the cubs and as we all were admitting that we had all secretly been a little sad there were no tigers, we came around a bend and came upon the three cubs' 13-year old mother. She was also pretty much just strolling, making her way down the path. (Apparently tigers' paws are soft enough that they prefer the dirt trail to the underbrush of much of the forest. A hurt paw can really impair their hunting ability.) Our guide said she had parted from the cubs to do the hunting for the day. At about 15 months, the cubs are still not hunting for themselves, though they may help her sometimes. But at this point, her mind didn't seem to be on hunting. Perhaps it was getting too hot. We drove behind her, passed her at about two or three feet away, and then drove in front of her for a long while, stopping and taking pictures before driving on again. Eventually she must of gotten hot, or perhaps this was her destination all along, and she went to dunk herself in another human-made pool (concrete). Again, she could not have cared less about our presence - the tigers are clearly the lords of all they survey. When she came upon a large group of monkeys, they started doing the coughing and chuffing that is the alarm call, and clearing the path.
We finally had to leave because we had overstayed, but we all wanted to hug the tigers and live with them forever at that point. (Not much rational thinking going on there - tigers may have some magical power when you are close to them, I don't know...)
We came out and hiked around the amazing Ranthambore fort area and did a puja at the Ganesh mandir. While walking toward the mandir, we came across an area perhaps 50 feet long where people were building little mini-cairns (see the pic to the right). Our guide explained to us that this was a place where people came for blessings on new homes or homes to be constructed. The bigger the pile, the bigger the house I think. I suppose I think this is just a superstition, but I did have an urge to build a small rock pile too for my little house back in Portland.
Here are a few more pictures. There are many more, as you might imagine. I have hi-res versions that look better, let me know if you want me to email you one or two...