The warning growl, a flash of orange, heightened tension in the air: A tiger is near!
This is what I had imagined and wanted to experience. Mention tiger, and India comes to mind. So, a few years ago, my wife, son, and I decided to visit Ranthambhore, a onetime princely hunting ground turned tiger preserve 112 miles from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state in western India.
We stayed in a luxury tent, once used to accommodate guests during tiger hunts in the last century. That evening we went on a safari. We saw several deer that seemed alert and restless. The forest guide said they sensed the presence of a tiger nearby, but we saw no tigers. We returned to camp slightly depressed, had dinner around a blazing campfire under the stars, and went to bed hoping for better luck the next day.
Next morning we woke early, had tea and biscuits, and left for a second safari. It was still dark and freezing cold. We had sweaters and jackets but were still glad for the blankets that were in the Jeep. Routes in the forest were selected by lottery. I drew a number, and we proceeded into the forest. We drove for a while on the prescribed route. We saw fresh pugmarks, a hopeful sign. We came across three Himalayan black bears, a mother with two cubs. They came frolicking down the hillside right in front of our car, saw us, turned, and ran. They were hilarious to watch but kicked up so much dust it was hard to get a good photo. Still, no tiger. The sun rose, the temperature started to rise along with our anxiety. We continued driving with a sharp look out on all sides.
Suddenly, as we drove up the slope of a hill, we saw the silhouette of a tigress against the skyline, right next to the car track. She turned and started walking away from us. The driver drove faster to catch up. We gazed, spellbound. She was a magnificent animal, beautiful and fearless. She paused behind a bush and turned to look at us. Her coat was bright orange with jet black stripes and blended perfectly with the dry leaves of the winter forest. At that moment I understood the meaning of camouflage and how tigers became such stealthy, effective hunters. I told the driver to stop, grabbed my camera, and took a photo.
We returned to camp with great joy. It is very rare to see tigers in the wild, and we were extremely fortunate to see the tigress and the bears. We left with incredible memories and great photos. The picture of the tigress is now the background of my computer desktop. It elicits gasps of admiration from viewers and gives me a chance, now and then, to tell the story of our encounter with the tigress of Ranthambhore.