To see a tiger up close in the wild is truly thrilling. And rare.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only about 3,900 wild tigers in the entire world. Some 60 to 62 of them roam within the 400-square-kilometer (154-square-mile) core of India's Ranthambore National Park in the state of Rajasthan.
Easily camouflaged, tigers move freely through the park's dry deciduous forest, bush land and rocky hills, and among the hauntingly beautiful stone ruins that allude to the ancient kingdoms that once thrived there.
Hema Maira first went to Ranthambore as a young teacher in the 1980s, chaperoning a group of students from the American Embassy School in Delhi, where she lives. She saw a tiger and it changed her life. She has since been to Ranthambore more than 150 times and was even inspired to write a book — "Looking at the Tiger."
A fixed number of vehicles are permitted in the park for a morning and an afternoon tracking session each day. Visitors must remain inside the vehicles for their safety — tigers are powerful carnivores, after all.
Each of the 40 gypsies (or jeeps) and open-sided canters (or mini-buses) must be accompanied by an English-speaking guide, though what matters most is their ability to track a tiger.
"It's partly luck, yes, but the tracking skills of the driver and the guide can make a huge difference," Maira says.
Guides like Himmat Singh of Ranthambhore Safaris & Tours grew up in the area and know the park intimately. A guide for more than 25 years, it's Singh's job to scan the ground for pug marks (footprints) and listen for the short high-pitched alarm call of the sambar deer and langur monkeys, warning one another that a predator — a tiger — is near.
Spotting a tiger
There are of course no guarantees, but the hope is a tiger will saunter past your canter or jeep, rewarding you with an up-close look at its muscular body, long powerful tail and handsome face. Males can easily weigh more than 400 pounds, yet these huge cats in their silky, striped orange and black coats are exceedingly graceful.
While the elusive tiger is what draws people to Ranthambore, visitors are equally as lucky to encounter an evasive caracal — a lithe cat with a flamboyant tuft of hair on its head — or a leopard or sloth bear. Sambar deer, wild pigs, and peacocks, on the other hand, are ubiquitous.
While Maira is a wildlife lover, she's drawn to Ranthambore for other reasons too — its remoteness, serenity and the haunting beauty of its 10th-century fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
"I'm so passionate about Ranthambore," says Maira. "I want to share it with the world."
The past & the future
A century ago, India had thousands of tigers, but just 50 years later, their numbers had dramatically decreased as the human population grew and encroached on the tigers' natural habitats. Tree removal for firewood remains one of the most challenging issues for India's wildlife.
By the 1950s, the beginnings of a wildlife conservation movement were taking root in India and by 1973, Ranthambore, the former hunting grounds of Maharajas of Jaipur, was designated a tiger reserve. In 1980, it was made a national park.
Despite the challenges, the tiger numbers at Ranthambore have been holding steady. In fact, a July New York Times article claims India's tiger population has actually increased.
Getting there: Many major airlines fly into Delhi. There are daily trains on the Shatabdi Express between Delhi and the town of Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, including over-night sleeper trains; it's about four to six hours one way. You can also drive from Delhi in about 8 hours.
When to go: Skies are sunny and temperatures cool (even cold) from October to February; peak months are October, when the park reopens after the monsoon, and December. It's uncomfortably hot from March to May, and the park is closed from June to September.
Exploring the park: You must book a seat in a 20-person, open-air canter or a six-person gypsy. Book online at here or here, or through your hotel (which will charge extra) or tour company. Definitely book six to 12-months in advance for peak season visits, and it's optimal to schedule three or four half-day safaris to increase your chances of tiger sightings.