Ranthambhor – Fortress Haven For Indian Wildlife
Dusk is tigertime and an electric change transforms the jungle. We wait, intently listening to distant sounds as the air is sharply split by the scare-call of a chital. Close and to our right, a sambar bellows confirmation as the frantic cackle-barking of langurs adds to the cacophony, and a peaceful jungle is suddenly filled with fear and alarm. A predator walks.
Photo: Valmik Thapar.
In the fast-fading light we nose our jeep in the direction of the calls where, less than 30 metres away, a young male tiger pads slowly down the road by the edge of the Rajbagh lake. The setting is perfect; the last rays of the sun glinting through the reeds at the lake's edge as the tiger veers off the road to settle in a patch of high grass. Engine off, we sit quietly, observing ...
These moments of enchantment mean everything to me and to experience them more often I have made Ranthambhor my second home. The tiger and the life around him have become an obsession with me and understanding his behaviour and documenting it have become a never ending challenge.
Nothing can prepare you for the atmosphere of Ranthambhor, least of all Sawai Madhopur, the little shanty-town where one alights after a six-hour rail journey from Delhi, to be transported half an hour later, by jeep, to Jogi Mahal – where the magic begins.
Entering Ranthambhor, the road runs along a deep ravine to a massive stone gate which was once constructed to protect the domain of kings and today protects a treasure of equal, if not greater, value -- a home for tigers and leopards and all the other animals that together comprise the makings of a natural paradise. Past the gate the air cools, the vegetation thickens, and, cresting a rise, you see the incredible sight of a fort, grey and looming, in a forest of green. The Ranthambhor Tiger Reserve derives its name from this fort, situated atop a hill around which the forests are spread. No one seems to know exactly when Fort Ranthambhor was built but historians agree that it is one of India's oldest battlements. Walking within its walls, one feels a strong presence of the past; the times of valour and bravery and death. Legend has it that in 1381, ten thousand women committed johar rather than allow themselves to be taken over by the ruler of an opposing, victorious army. History records however, that the fort withstood the assaults of a galaxy of generals – Kutub-ud-din (1209); Allauddin Khilji (1301); Firoz Tuglaq (1325); Bahadur Shah of Gujarat (1530); and even Akbar the Great who besieged the fort for eleven years from 1558 to 1569. These, and later wars, must surely have ravaged the area all around and today, overrun by vegetation, the scattered remnants of chatris, summer palaces and crumbling guard posts can still be seen -- reminders of an historic past, set within a wild, present.
Jogi Mahal. Quiet. No electricity. Situated just below the fort at the edge of a large lake. The compound is almost completely occupied by a banyan tree, reputed to have the third largest spread* in India. Peacocks, babblers, parrots and mynahs have proprietory rights here and can be heard incessantly through the day. From Jogi Mahal’s terrace the waters of a placid lake reveal the variety of life which concerned people are so desperately trying to protect. Crocodiles swim lazily across the surface to reach favourite rocks to sun themselves. Wild boar, chital and sambar feed on the lush grasses that grow all along the periphery of the lake, while darters, herons, grebes and kingfishers constantly entertain viewers with their expert hunting skills. Occasionally, a large carp slaps the water in pursuit of a fly or insect. Rarely, a leopard or tiger comes to the lake's edge to drink or just to survey the scene. This is the idyllic setting in which people stay when they come to view Ranthambhor’s wildlife.
Photo: Fateh Singh.
Ranthambhor was once the hunting preserve of the erstwhile Maharajas of Jaipur. In 1958 it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and in 1974 it came under the protective umbrella of Project Tiger. In 1981 it was awarded National Park status and richly does it deserve protection, for it is undoubtedly amongst the finest natural areas of the world. Its 392 sq.km. area is clothed by a dry, deciduous forest whose colours change with the passage of each season, from a burnt-yellow in summer and lush-green during the monsoon, to an autumn-rust just prior to winter. Changing seasons signal changing moods, and I happily recall the hot, summer nights spent sleeping under the banyan tree, listening to the calls of night creatures whose communication I eventually learned to decipher. Winter nights were cold and under the same free, a camp-fire blazing. I have spotted a panther walking just a few yards away, bold and unafraid. It is easy to fall in love with Ranthambhor and both casual visitors and serious wildlifers are inevitably swept away by its charisma.
In dry and semi-dry areas, wildlife is invariably concentrated near water which is why sighting animals is so easy in Ranthambhor; a direct result of the year long water supply afforded by a chain of three lakes. Adjoining Padam Talao, the first lake (on whose shore Jogi Mahal is situated), is Rajbagh, perhaps the best of the three lakes for viewing the ungulates. Every evening a large population of sambar, chital and wild boar frequent Rajbagh and I have often seen tigers walk through the grass at the edge of this lake in anticipation of a kill. A kilometre inward, the third lake. Milak Talao has two small hides constructed on its banks. If one keeps quiet and has the patience to sit for a few hours, it is possible to observe animals who come to drink here, from fairly close quarters.
Wildlife viewing need not however be restricted to the lake areas alone. Nature has been generous to Ranthambhor and the park is criss-crossed with streams and rivulets flowing through great rock formations and steep scarps. The interior of the park abounds in wide grasslands as well as thick forest cover, and a vast variety of animals can thus avail of the habitat that suits them best.
Here in the heart of Ranthambhor, the Arravalis and Vindhyan ranges meet and present the eye with grand vistas. The Vindhyans with their flat tops form extensive tablelands called dangs and the Arravalis, with their sharp ridges leading to long narrow valleys, are called khos. The khos form important tiger niches where litters are dropped and the animals can retreat away from the disturbance of visitors, road workers and the devotees who come to some of the temples and places of pilgrimage situated in and around Ranthambhor. Two hundred kilometres of jeepable, fair-weather roads provide excellent access to remote areas, but to the credit of the management, several sanctums have been left untouched and isolated, with no roads and thus no human intrusion. This allows the animals the peace and privacy so necessary to their well-being, for if they were constantly disturbed they would find it difficult to procreate and rear their young.
To protect the habitat and avoid conflict between man and beast, 12 villages have been shifted out of Ranthambhor. The villagers, though sad to leave their ancestral homes, were very well compensated and are better off today than they ever were. The authorities are to be complimented on the successful implementation of this crucial plan, for all over India, the growth of human population levels is exerting alarming pressure on wildlife areas. Cattle, essential to villagers, transmit diseases and compete with wild game for fodder. Wood, necessary for village fires, is lifted from jungles, thus causing severe denudation and disturbance to game. Today the shifted village sites are a vivid example of nature's regenerating powers where grasses and shrubs have overrun fields, and mosses and lichens have carpeted the stone walls of abandoned dwellings. Some of these deserted villages such as Anantpura, Bekaula and Lakarda are amongst the most likely spots to come across tigers, leopards and bears. Deer and antelope have occupied the area as well and in another ten years or so, only a practised eye would be able to make out that there was ever any human habitation here.
Photo: Valmik Thapar.
The Ranthambhor management plan has been to leave nature to tend its own wards. Most of the personnel perform 'watch-dog' functions to ensure that poaching, illegal grazing, wood-cutting and other such human intrusions are prevented. Others traverse the forests on pre-determined routes to report on game activity, road conditions, fire-prevention and tracking. These people are well-versed in jungle lore and are familiar with the habits and behaviour of animals. The rivulets, for instance, which carry water through the winter, are completely dry in summer and predators find comfort in their cool and shady nooks. Trackers, following pug marks in these nullahs, can predict with amazing accuracy the range of movement of particular tigers, whose footprints have been measured repeatedly and are easily identifiable. Information received from, such trackers, who leave at the first light of dawn, is the primary means of viewing the tiger in Ranthambhor. On the basis of the tracker's readings one has to judge the likely direction which the tiger will take and the possible location where he will rest up during the day. Then, in the early hours of the evening, it is advisable to position one's self in the area of focus, after which it is a question of luck and your understanding of the language of the wilds. In a quiet jungle, animals calls can be heard over long distances and langurs, peacocks, chital and sambar, ever alert to the presence of a predator, invariably announce its whereabouts with their scare-calls. Listening to and deciphering these calls is imperative if you want to view predators. Chance encounters are few, as, more often than not, the animal will see you first and using his superb camouflage abilities, will melt into the surroundings without your ever having been aware of his presence.
The tiger is an extremely unpredictable animal and many 'knowledgeable' experts have been baffled by his non-observance of routine. No one can be 'sure' therefore of spotting a tiger in Ranthambhor, or any wildlife reserve for that matter. We do know however, that the tiger prefers areas where he can hunt with stealth. Ranthambhor has many such areas which sport high grass, hills and valleys with nullahs for the tiger to disappear into when he feels threatened or insecure. Provided one is careful not to disturb the animal, it is possible to approach the tiger in an open jeep and study it from distances of less than 20 feet.
The abundance of animal and plant life in Ranthambhor is well-meshed. The large population of sambars who prefer to eat shoots growing in the water of the lakes, rarely compete with chital who prefer the grasses that grow on land. The langurs have an abundance of wild fruit trees and their stomachs are specially chambered to allow them to digest leaves. Nilgai are generally seen grazing away from the lake areas and chinkaras with their capacity to obtain water from the plants they eat, inhabit the remote and hard ground plateau and hills of the interior. Sloth bears are extremely shy and keep to the valleys where they subsist on wild fruits and termites whose mounds they break using their powerful claws. In search of roots, wild boar dig up the earth with their tusks, leaving behind large shallow holes; occasionally wading into the lakes to wallow and feed as well. Rabbits and porcupines can be seen scuttling around in search of food at night when nocturnal predators like civets, hyenas and jungle cats also get active. The dark also brings out the two big cats – the tiger and the leopard whose food habits differ considerably. The leopard, being smaller, preys largely on langurs, small mammals, peacocks and other birds whereas the tiger selects large prey like sambar, chital and nilgai. Occasionally, the hunting range of the two may over-lap, in which case the leopard will give way to the more powerful tiger.
Photo: Valmik Thapar.
The harmony of life in Ranthambhor is easy to see and feel but will this harmony remain undisturbed? By my reckoning, no. Not for long, unless people who care for the wilds get together, discuss, argue and arrive at solutions for the very real problems that threaten such havens. The situation is graphically described by Fateh Singh Rathore, the Field Director of the Reserve: “You demarcate an area within which nature is given full opportunity to develop and obviously the result will be good, as it is in Ranthambhor. Grasses and trees grow unhindered. Nutrients are returned to the soil. Birds and animals find the peace they need. But look just outside the Park and you see that the villager's cattle have completely denuded the land by over-grazing. The villagers themselves have cut down almost anything that can burn to light their house fires and, inspite of the efforts to educate them, they just cannot understand the principles of scientific land management, so their fields produce less and less food. The result is that they look at the forest and say. `Why should such good grass be left for wild animals only? Why can't we allow our cattle to graze here? What is wrong if we take some wood from the jungle to burn when there is so much lying ‘waste’ on the forest floor?' No one knows what will happen eventually, but the pressure build-up is very accute and what happened to me a few months ago* is only the beginning of the end of our plans to save India's forests and wildlife.”
No one would like to see such beautiful, natural areas ruined and it is not just a question of preserving these places for aesthetic reasons. They are crucial to the ecological well-being of our nation and should be left untouched for the benefit of future generations.
by Valmik Thapar, First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. II. No. 1, January/March 1982.