You are driving, meandering along Ranthambhore National Park’s network of tracks that enable you to see what the area has to offer and suddenly your jeep stops, pugmarks! Fresh paw-prints dot along the track and it takes you back to when you were 5 years old and playing “Connect the Dots” where the end prize could be a beautiful female tigress. As you follow the trail of breadcrumbs, the impressions left behind by a tigress’ recent presence, you yourself come away with an impression that these tigers prefer to walk on the track, rather than the scrub to your immediate left and right where it seems to be more concealed.
Although a tiger will use the forest canopy and vegetation as a means to relax under a natural parasol away from the sun’s extreme heat or to escape notice when stalking prey, there is a common tendency for tigers (and actually most big cats) to prefer walking on the jeep tracks for a couple of reasons.
The first and more a general reason is that tigers being predators who predominantly rely on their paws for a variety of reasons. When stalking, a tiger’s legs and paws have to be able to support its own weight when crouching with its body only a couple of centimetres of the forest floor. A tiger’s pads enable them to get extremely close to their prey unnoticed as they are very soft. This allows them to move silently through the forest. Again, when hunting, tigers often leap with their hind legs and catch their prey by latching on to their target with their claws that can be as long as 4 inches long before using their teeth to kill the animal. These two examples just show how important a tiger’s paws are for survival. For a tiger to know what exactly it is treading on is a major cause of concern as a thorn can easily penetrate its pad and make it hugely difficult to stalk or hunt effectively. An injury to its back pads may hinder its leap while an injury to its front pads will inhibit its ability to move through the forest floor silently or effectively latch onto its prey. It is now possible to see part of the reason why these incredible cats walk along the clear tracks. With less debris on these routes, tigers are able to move through their territory quicker, and with less risk of injury to their paws.
Interestingly, there is a second reason why you can see tigers in Ranthambhore National Park walking along the tracks. Even before Ranthambhore had received it’s National Park status in 1980, the Forest Department of India moved around the park first by foot and then eventually also by jeep. As they were tracking these tigers they often saw pugmarks of these pre-existing tracks that ran through the forest. Ancestral knowledge passed down through their mothers for generations, shows that tigers had been using a conjoining network of preferred routes when moving through the forest. With constant use these tracks had become wider and wider. Therefore when Ranthambhore opened its gates to the public, it seemed too destructive to carve new tracks through the forest for jeeps to move about when the tigers themselves had created an intricate web of routes that spread across the whole of the park already. It’s something to remember if ever you are lucky enough to observe one of these majestic cats walking on the track that this track has been created by a long lineage of tigers mapping the forest floor and continuously teaching them to their offspring.