For the past three decades, Ranthambhore has been the best wilderness in the world to observe and photograph wild Tigers. While it is also home to a few other ‘iconic’ species, sightings of Tigers have generally outweighed all the others put together. Over the last few years however, while Tiger numbers here have risen steadily, so too have sightings of Leopard and Sloth Bear. This trend defies common belief that when tiger numbers rise, leopards are rarely seen; preferring to stay well away from Tigers who will usually try and kill them. While this is still the general rule, Leopards have been seen roaming a little more freely during the daylight hours than before. The topography of this unique ecosystem supports a healthy leopard population with all the caves and crevasses of the ancient Aravalli and Vindhya hill ranges. As for the Sloth Bear, Tigers are wary of them and it takes a large and experienced one to take a Baloo on! While extremely shy, these bears can be fairly fierce and will confront their adversaries when necessary and usually even without provocation.
The afternoon of the 5th of April 2013 turned out to be one of my most memorable drives in Ranthambhore. Nearly basted by the strong sun I reckoned the only sensible place to look for Tigers would be in or near water. The past few monsoons have been exceptional in this part of the country and consequently there is a much wider dispersal of water around the reserve. So while we scanned the area around one waterhole, where there had been reports of tiger movement that morning, a Niglai’s alarm call got our attention. Turning the jeep around, we drove towards the location of the antelope’s alarm. We had hardly proceeded a hundred meters when a Tiger appeared on the jungle track, right in front of us. She appeared to be stalking and looking towards the dry, rocky stream bed to our left. No prey was visible inside or around the nullah. With the help of binoculars, we spotted another tiger with only its head visible in the tall (vetiver) grass. The excitement grew, for going by the tigress’s body language, it seemed like some action was imminent; a territorial fight perhaps or possibly mating. It turned out however to be a mother and son, who met affectionately, nuzzled and then gradually melted away into the long grass.
We moved on, driving through beautiful groves of Flame of the Forest trees, which are now in bloom. Having just driven up an incline we chanced upon a Sloth Bear raiding termite mounds. Shy and elusive, the bear gave us a couple of minutes before cantering off into a gorge full of Tendu trees whose fruit bears love to devour.
We were now on a hat-trick. A leopard would complete the set. Scanning the edges of the steep rock faces and small nullahs below, while exiting the park we hoped to catch sight of a leopard on an evening stroll. Our hopes began to fade as we drove away from the Park gates, ‘perhaps another time’ we thought as we approached Camp, still peeling away the landscape with our eyes in the crepuscular light. Just then, metres from the Sher Bagh gate, a movement on the track revealed a gliding leopard padding the road, straight towards us! What brilliant luck we thought, or maybe, conclusive signs of a healthy forest, in harmony with its diversity.
Written by Jaisal Singh
Photography by Jaisal Singh except for the first image of the author which is taken by Balendu Singh