Rajasthan was gifted with a very wet monsoon season last year: Ranthambhore’s verdant nature had returned and the wildlife rediscovered their Arcadia. In October, as you meandered through the jungle, you were able to witness the park’s rebirth, the dhok trees flourishing in their senility, the grass long, thick and lush and the network of water channels flowing full. This allows wildlife to disperse throughout the park and the numerous watering holes scattered around the area were full for cheetal, or sambar deer to quench their thirst and leafy groves for nilgai antelope to browse and feast upon.
November saw this season’s best number of sightings of tiger in one drive: Noor (T39) and her, then, three cubs, barely three months old at the time, T60 with her own three cubs about 6 months older than Noor’s litter, and Pacman making a total of 9 tigers on a single drive! It was also during this time that Pacman, a strong adolescent with the attitude of spoilt teenager and his father, Star (T28), with paws the size of a bowling balls, had been competing in a power struggle, fighting over the same territory near the Raj Bagh Lake. Since both tigers claim the area to be their own, guests usually saw both roaming this contested space and at times witnessed the aftermath of these battles. On one day Star injured and limping, on another Pacman looking worse off. Despite these scrapes, there is a deep familial bond between the two as witnessed on occasions where both father and son would be lying by Padam Lake, bathing in the sun before it creeps behind Ranthambhore Fort, throwing its golden rays across the glassy waters at the resting pair.
But, this squabble disappeared as quickly as the sun does on a cool December evening. Pacman, a huge presence the month before, was nowhere to be seen for fifteen days. Suddenly a usual December downpour blanketed the park and for three days animals took shelter. Pacman had returned when the rain settled and again in the limelight. It is also during this month that the park surged with fawns of Cheetal clinging close to their mothers, and, as you drove past, the slightest noise that the jeep made would send them two feet into the air before a quick bolt in the opposite direction. However, if you were very quiet, you were able to see these babes suckling from their mothers, while the males, showcasing their antlers that were still coated with their velvet fuzz, grazed the jungle’s floor on the periphery.
At Sher Bagh, this month also brings the joys and festivities of Christmas to camp. The tree was up, presents underneath and the hue of the lights gave Sher Bagh a homely glow. In the eve, all guests settled down under a starry sky with lanterns and braziers radiant. Instead of the accustomed warming voice of Michael Bublé that so often fills the background of homes at this time, traditional Indian folk singers filled the air, an Indian twist to the whole evening as the chef went around the guests carving the Turkey.
New Year broke and as weary eyes woke up to see its sunrise, January brought about an unprecedented number of sloth bear sightings. Guests would see exceptional sightings of these creatures only few have witnessed. At one time a bear had spotted a beehive above and as with Tantalus tempted by the ripe fruits which dangle on high so too does the sweet nectar of honey hanging from the tree tops prove an insatiable treat for the bear. This time, like the Greek king’s fate, the bear came away empty handed, defeated by its towering height. At other times, cubs were seen hanging tight on the back of their mother as she bumbled about digging for termites, an amuse bouche to keep the stomach rumbles at bay, and guests even saw a sloth bear walking alongside a leopard as they drove the park side by side. Leopard sightings had also spiked this month. Usually being a momentary flash of spots, this January produced much lengthier leopard sightings, as they lazily dangled from high branches.
As the first signs of summer begin to show, the midday sun that, according to Noel Coward, only “mad dogs and Englishmen” would dare to brave, put the whole park into a lulling slumber. All birds and mammals rush to the shadows of the canopy or cool themselves in the refreshing waters. Throughout December, January and February, these watering holes that were so prominent in the first couple of months started to recede and now as the nullah’s dry up, the activity happens around the main basins of water. After being elusive for most of the season, Noor and her three cubs are finally making appearances more often and for longer periods of time, sitting by the reflective ponds and lapping up the water. Elsewhere, as the spirit of February hangs in the air, a new young male tiger, T91, appeared on the scene and captured the attention of Arrowhead, the resident female. Roaming in and around the romance filled vistas of Raj Bagh’s palaces and ruins together, it seems fitting that this should be the site for their cohabitation.
As the close of March looms and April fast approaches and as each month has offered unique spectacles, it’s hard not to wait with bated breath to anticipate what new magic Ranthambhore is waiting to unveil in the coming months…