Steven and his fellow travelers scoured the grounds of Ranthambore National Park in search of the elusive tiger.
By Steven C., 11-time traveler and 2-time Vacation Ambassador from Pinole, CA
We are on the wrong continent to see lions, so none of those beasts were available to view in the wilds of India. But in Ranthambore National Park on our trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) to the Heart of India, we managed to see a large sloth bear and a three-plus year old Royal Bengal Tiger who was master of his domain. Unlike lions, Bengal Tigers do not live in prides, but are pretty much territorial loners. Even with mothers and their cubs, after about two and a half years, the mother kicks out her young tigers or one of the young tigers kicks the mother out. Familial bonds dissolve and all tigers revert to being lone hunters.
The young male we saw in Ranthambore had kicked out rival males and females from his territory and roamed at will. This pretty much translates into "big", real big in fact, and tough—kind of an orange and black striped furry version of a Terminator. Tigers are committed carnivores. Their prey, mainly Sambar and Spotted deer, are devout herbivores. Wild pigs are omnivores, which tigers are known to dine upon, although the pigs are tough and will put up a fight. Tigers have to be quite hungry to attack a big pig. But then again, sometimes tigers get that way. Tigers hunt mainly by stealth and ambush from tall grasses, not by running down their prey. Being warm blooded in a hot climate, tigers are sensitive to overheating—heat produces lazy behavior, lots of lounging around, cooling off in the lake, and lying in wait for prey to wander past them. In fact, the signature behavior for a tiger is patience. Lots of it. And if you want to see a tiger in the wild of Ranthambore, you must have patience too.
The Sloth Bear we spotted briefly is rarely seen, a clever animal, good at avoiding crowds. Our guide, Raj, hadn't seen one for five years. The term "sloth" should not be confused with being small, reticent, or easy prey for tigers. Named sloth bears for their ability to hang in trees like sloths, these bears are generally tough, built lanky and hard, very strong, very good tree climbers, and capable of bursts of great speed. They can be aggressive toward other predators and humans. The bear we saw looked to be in the 600 pound range, perhaps a bit larger.
Sloth Bears are well-armed. They have claws of their own, long knife-like affairs that are sort of a cross between a curved dagger, a large center punch, and a steel cold chisel. These bear claws are attached to a stout and muscular paw, itself attached to a short and immensely powerful leg. Sloth Bears are insectivores, noted for digging out termite mounds, which usually have the structural consistency of incompletely cured concrete. And then there is the bear's mouth. It has a set of large incisors built to rip apart insect-bearing hardwood logs. Although the mouth can open wide, the mandible is short and supported by a relatively massive musculature that certainly is capable of crushing the bones of an attacking predator. Bite pressures are in the range of twenty-thousand pounds per square inch. The naturalist with us said that Sloth Bears don't look for fights, but will face down tigers and leopards if attacked. As insect eaters, they are adept at finding termite mounds and also finding honey in the forest. But tigers who failed to surprise attack a sloth bear from the rear, more likely than not would be on the losing end of a fight with an adult boar, or a sow defending her cubs. Don't we from North America know what that looks like!
Finding the tiger was, for our naturalist, an exercise in hunch, elimination of some territory, patience, and luck. Our first exploratory foray was in the early morning along Park trails three and four. Tigers can roam anywhere, so we explored the highlands over rough jeep trails in our open-air roofless safari trucks equipped with bench seats, all sixteen of us aboard. It was a bumpy ride, to say the least, with narrow side clearances between the small scrub and short trees. Monkeys abounded, Sambar and Spotted deer, birds of fifteen species or so, wild pigs, freshwater crocodiles, squirrels and chipmunks, peacocks and peahens, the one Sloth Bear, and the list goes on. But no tiger. Perhaps one of us could step out of the bus and walk around to flush him out, I reasoned. Uh, maybe not. Deep within me, some part of that sounded like a bad idea. In fact, I and others started to wonder quietly to ourselves if a determined and hungry tiger might not get it into his head to leap right up into the bus and haul one of us away, and eventually down his gullet. None of us raised the question with our guide, although I was sure many were thinking along those lines.
In the afternoon we finally caught up with our Royal Bengal Tiger. The Big Guy was in a cool patch of dry grass in the shade under a tree near a small arm of a lake. He was reclining, his head and neck raised, looking around, about 50 yards away. Camera telephotos and binoculars brought him into view; cell phone cameras couldn't quite capture the image. After a while, Mr. Tiger lay down, evidently not concerned about any of us trying to sneak up on him and pull his tail. We waited another ten minutes, and then decided to move on to other sights in Ranthambore, pledging to return in an hour or so after our tiger awakened from his midday nap.
Up the lake we drove, spotting potential future meals for the tiger, these in the form of Sambar and Spotted deer, small pigs, peacocks and even a wild dog. And they were standing so near the tall grass by the lake. A few of these herd animals were abstaining from feeding so that they could stare intently at the grass, ears cocked, hardly moving a muscle. Looking toward the shallows of the lake was a log detached from any drowned tree. Watch long enough and the log moves, slowly, a wake imperceptible, even a ripple. Although birds were flying all around and landing on dead floating branches and water-logged trees, none even flew close to the crocodile, his clever disguise not quite working to lure food sources close.
Following the Trail two loop around the lake, we eventually returned to the area where we had left the tiger an hour or so earlier. Several safari trucks were already standing by, loaded with people. The tiger had moved from his prior recumbency, some of us in a position to watch him get up and walk toward a hidden position in the tall grass. So we watched the grass for signs of movement. And we watched and watched, and watched again, trying to exercise that paramount virtue in tiger watching: patience.
Mr. Tiger got up once again and vanished into the tall grass. We all strained with our optical instruments, our ears, our naked eyes to detect any movement in the tall grass, any clue of the tiger's presence. How close was he? Was he to the right? The left? Was he in the shorter grass under our noses slowly creeping up on us? The tension was palpable.
All at once, a deep guttural roar came up at us, snarling, menacing, loud to the point of primal. Laura in the seat to my left involuntarily grabbed my arm and uttered a gasp. I winced and with a hundred thousand years of racial memory embedded in my DNA found myself bracing for a swift attack. Adrenaline coursed freely though the veins of our assemblage, hearts pounding, hairs on the backs of necks upright, looking for the threat.
The naturalist with us motioned for us to remain quiet. Complying with his request wasn't hard, no one in the mood to hoot and holler, the idea of making taunts in the direction of the roar not the first choice for the crowd. Besides, by consensus I'm sure we would have ejected anyone from the vehicle at that time foolish enough to issue "cat calls" to the tiger.
Backing the vehicle farther up the hill, we saw the tiger in repose come clearly into view. He started out in a lying position resting upon his fore legs, head up, looking at us with an aware but not focused stare. Then the cat-like grooming started, followed by laying his giant head back down and rolling onto his back, hind legs idly clawing the air behind him. His body writhed slightly on his back, scratching his back fur gently. Finally the head reclined and the tiger's body went limp, as a cat can do, lazy bones, the heat of the day subsiding. The sun was low on the horizon and soon the mobs of tourists would leave and the head cat, the Royal Bengal tiger of Ranthambore, would have his domain to his own. He might grab a bite or two to eat, or maybe just rest. He could do whatever came to mind. That's the way it is when you're the top tiger in Ranthambore.
Perhaps you, too, will be lucky enough to encounter a tiger in Ranthambore National Park during O.A.T.’s Heart of India adventure.