Madeleine (co-founder of Indian Excursions Co) recently sat down with Vivek (head of our Ranthambhore office, and former naturalist guide) and Ashlesh (naturalist guide) to share stories from Ranthambhore National Park and discuss their most memorable sightings.
We captured our conversation on video, but if you’d rather read the transcript…
M: Hi Vivek. Hi Ashlesh. Thank you so much for joining me today… to have a bit of a chat about Ranthambhore. So, Vivek, can you tell me how long you’ve been a guide in Ranthambhore?
V: In Ranthambhore I am working since 2004, so almost around 16, 15, 16 years in Ranthambhore.
M: And in that time, what was your most memorable sighting? If you can tell us.
V: Yes, Maddie. In 15/16 years, I’ve been many times in Ranthambhore, thousands times in Ranthambhore. We have fantastic sightings many time. it is un-countable! But definitely I want to share the very good sighting with me. I am talking about 2007 or 8, that time the Machli tigress family in Ranthambhore, fourth litter of Machli that time. And, with me, the French people. The French guest with family basically; husband, wife, and two boys aged around 15 to 17 years old boys, 17 to 18 years old boys. So they had four safaris in Ranthambhore. First safari there’s no tiger sighting. In Ranthambhore, as you know, wildlife is a wild subject and we cannot guarantee tiger sightings. So first safari no tiger sighting but we saw many animals. Second safari again no sighting and they start to disappointing because they definitely came to see the big cat tiger. Third safari also no tiger sighting so they were very disappointed, and they told me “we don’t want to speak to you. If you see us the tiger, then we can speak to you. Otherwise no talk to us. We have seen many animals in the Africa, and we came in India to spot only tiger!”. But in the fourth safari, the last safari, I was also very disappointed – as you know, the Ranthambhore guides always try their best to find the big cats. I was also disappointed that time. That time, in the summertime they came basically and the exit time to the park was 7 o clock in the evening. Till 6, [we had] no tiger sightings and we were in the zone number 2. We were [going to be] coming out the park in almost half an hour. In the last moment, down to the fort area, we started to heard the alarm call of the monkeys. They were making very loudly noise. So we all that that definitely, big cat is around us, so we will lucky if we spot it. After that, we were sitting 4 or 5 minutes and we spot a leopard family close, it was sitting on the fort wall. Four it was the little cubs and the leopard was on the fort wall. And the guest, with the binocular, it was not close it was about 150 metres far. You [Maddie] have been in Ranthambhore so you’ve seen that fort wall is very high and very huge wall. So they were sitting on the wall. We saw with the binocular, but after we seeing the leopard they [the tourists] were not happy. They told me that “we’ve seen many leopards in Africa”.
M: *laughs* So they said “don’t talk to me!”?
V: I’m again disappointing. And hardly like twenty minutes that time was exit time to the park. So, we, that time, around quarter to seven almost – 7 o clock was the exit time – and we disappoint and then we went, start to go from that place. Hardly we passed 200 metre, 300 metre, [then] we saw the sudden that Machli was on the road. We saw the Machli tigress. She was in front of the vehicle, and, just like, she just came into the bushes and she was on the road. And she came and she lying down on the road, and the guests were very happy to spot that beautiful tigress.
M: And I guess you were the only Jeep there, that time?
V: Yeah, we, our vehicle was the last vehicle. Because we were trying hard to spot a tiger for that family.
M: I think Machli heard about the family and she just wanted to help you! *laughs*
V: *laughs* Yes, I think so!
M: I can imagine you had a lot of relief in that moment, when you’ve seen the tiger! *laughs*
V: *laughs* Yes, the guests were very happy. And suddenly – in four, five minutes later – the two cubs, they also came on the road. So at that time, at the last moment, three tigers were in front of our Jeep.
V: The tigers, the cubs was only 15, 16 months old so they are quite big like a female tiger, like a tigress size. One male cub and one female cub. And they [the tourists] were very happy to see all three tigers in front of, and hardly like 500 metres far to the exit gate.
M: That’s wonderful. And I guess if you’d not seen the leopard, not stopped for the leopard, you would’ve just left the park and you would not see the tiger. So, it all worked out!
V: Yeah. And it’s very interesting after that, what happened, that Machli you know she’s quite used to the vehicles. Like all wild animal basically they try to make a distance to the vehicle, but if we spot the tiger, they are like little used to the vehicle. So Machli, basically, is quite used to the vehicles. So, she came close to the vehicle, and because the place we spot a tiger… one side the fort wall and the other side a deep valley, you know, so very little space to give the road to pass the all three tigers. So, we were… they start to move… towards the vehicle, then we start the engine on, and we are going back. And the all three tigers coming, they’re following us. We spot a little space on the roadside. Then the driver was an expert so he take that vehicle on the side and the Machli came very close to the vehicle; like, hardly two or three feet.
M: Oh my gosh! *laughs*
V: She crossed the jeep. But, the cubs, it was unusual for those cubs, so the Machli crossed the jeep, so Machli was back to the vehicle and the cubs were on the front of the vehicle. And when the Machli was crossing the jeep, all the tourist were under the seat.
V: *laughs* You know, they were all under the seat!
M: So, they wanted to see the tiger, and now the tiger is here, and now they are just hiding! *laughs*
V: Yeah! So only me and driver saw the time she was crossing close to the vehicle but no tourist and no one from all four guests, didn’t like see the tiger very close, when she crossed the vehicle. They all were under the seat.
V: When she crossed to the other side, and then she turned and saw that the cubs were not coming, so she made a little growl you know, she make a little noise, you know growling and the cubs, started coming close to the vehicle, slowly, slowly they also scared, sometimes scared to the vehicle you know and slowly they also crossed the all roads. So, it was a great sighting. It was unforgettable for those tourists and for me it was a very close sighting.
M: Yeah! Wonderful.
V: They were very happy. The guests were very happy.
M: And a little bit scared? *laughs* And Ashlesh, how about you? Do you remember the first time that you ever saw a tiger? You must have seen so many, but can you remember the first?
A: Oh, I remember one of the great sighting in my life from like, you can say, like say about 33 years. So, this was during ‘88 when hardly three or four vehicles in the park and it is not very busy park on that time and only a small area was open. About 150 sq. km was open on that time. So, there is a place called Nahapur and tigers are not used to the jeeps at all. So, there was a British photographer. I remember his name also. His name was Robin and he is a wildlife photographer, so we went through and there was a tigress in ’88 on that place [unintelligible 00:09:06].
But, as you know, not much vehicles go over there, so you have to make your own road. This was a pretty grassland about four to four-and-a-half feet grassland. So, one of the deer started giving the warning call. The single deer on that grassland but you can’t see from your jeep four or five feet when you are make a road from the grass and driver was new, he was hardly like about 18 or 19-years-old on that time and not much experienced also. So, I told him to make a way through that grassland so as we are driving from the grassland, I was standing holding the gate and the roll bar and at the back that photographer was with big lens and on that time the lens are very, very heavy about 25kg of lenses with the camera. He was also standing holding the bar next to me and as we drive through, suddenly, because I have not spotted the tiger, tiger spotted us and he jumped on the bonnet!
A: The wind – windscreen/windglass – was down, I was holding the bar and on one side the gate, the driver was sitting, engine was on when he put a break as he saw the tiger jumped on the bonnet. I was the pretty closest one. I can… like… breathe of the tiger on my face.
M: Oh my gosh!
A: And I, because I was not experienced on that time, I was very like a…
M: and you didn’t know that the tiger was there, the tiger came on you? *laughs*
A: Yeah, yeah! Tiger came on you. And then I say, “I am gone”. So, thinking like this, three/four seconds are gone, but tiger didn’t done anything so I say now it’s becoming cool and I told to the driver because engine was suddenly gone off and driver was scared with sweat, in the winters! And he can’t speak anything. I told him twice to on the engine, I was talking between the teeth only, even not moving my lips and all and no eye contact with the tiger but he [the driver] can’t listen, then I abused him because if you abuse somebody he get a power.
A: Then something happened with him and I said, “on the engine”. He on the engine and as he on the engine the tiger just like shivers like what’s this wrong but nothing happened and I say now he is not going to charge, so I told him to reverse back. As he saw something is moving from my feet, sleepy, he just get down, and I said “off the engine now”. As we off the engine he was growling for like 15-20 minutes. He was sitting there and time to time growling and as I look…
M: He’s still on the car or he’s got down now?
A: He is gone down.
A: He was just growling on us and, as I look back, Robin was between the two seats and he was shivering.
M: *Laughs* he was not taking photos?
A: Yeah! Even I don’t question because he was in a very bad condition. Then I said to the driver “really, you go out from this grassland”. As he gone out, in his pants, pee and poo was there in his pants. And you know as we came because only that Tiger Moon resort was there on that time, that’s only the proper wildlife resort next to the park boundary, close to the gate also. He didn’t speak me up to the dinner.
A: Then I say it’s a really matter. It’s a serious matter because he was so much scared. Then I went to my room, and, there was a drink which is called rum.
A: So, on that time there is a bottle which is called 3X rum. So, I brought that bottle to the dining hall and then give him first large peg. After like 15-20 minutes, he gets a little bit normal and then I given him twice and then he was like screaming in the dining hall “Oh! I get a charge from the tiger!”. And he was talking to other tourists over there *laughs* and then I say what happened now *laughs*. So that’s the power of tiger also. *laughs*
M: I am laughing but I guess it’s not funny. It’s terrifying, it must be absolutely terrifying!
A: No, it can be terrifying because I know one thing that those what tigers I met. She is not a man-eater. There is not a single case happened. So, it was just scared and charged but it was a serious charge and if you are in a wild, you have to be careful also *laughs*. Anything can happen, so…
M: Did the driver continue with his job or he left the job?
A: No, he left the job.
M: I am not surprised! *laughs*
A: He is… he is from the closeby town which is called Tonk. And he worked, like he is working from last six months over there and after this incident, he is gone to the Tonk and never came back to see tiger again.
M: *laughs* No.
V: Tiger, tiger growl can freeze anybody!
M: Yeah! I have never heard it, but it must be terrifying.
V: It’s a beautiful cat, a big cat.
A: Oh, that’s a, if you, what the power the tigers have because I get another chance to see two male fighting. That place in Ranthambhore is called Indala and this was my life’s shot for more than one hour and one die immediately over there and second tiger on next day. Both died. But if you see their roaring and growling, even the whole forest was shivering.
A: Yeah! When they fight, even the animals around like deer and monkeys, they start screaming. So, whole park was noisy when they are fighting and suddenly, it’s completely finished. They are powerful tigers, but both died. So sad. even the tourist was crying on that time, even I was crying. So, that was very sad event to see.
A: Yeah! It’s very sad.
M: Yeah! I can imagine. So, Ashlesh, what do you think is the most interesting thing about Ranthambhore? Is there an interesting fact you could share with us?
A: Yeah, definitely. Ranthambhore is, Ranthambhore forest is a very unique forest. What is the reason, although semi-dry deciduous forest you can find lots of different. Even in Australia you can find and some other parts of India you can find semi-dry deciduous forest but very important we have two mountain ranges which meets in the park, one is the oldest one which is part of Himalayas is called Aravalis and one is Vindya chain which comes from Gujarat and finish in Madhya Pradesh. So, these two mountain ranges create a unique kind of semi-dry deciduous habitat in the park and because I have been to each and every part of India, but I love Ranthambhore very much. After this, these two mountains ranges, the fort and its ruins around the park which gives a very beautiful habitat of Ranthambhore.
M: Yeah, that’s true.
A: This is because of these two mountain ranges; this is one of the best habitat for the tiger also. If you make a line in the map of India towards Rajasthan, Ranthambhore is the starting of the tiger.
A: If you go upward toward Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pakistan, other Arab countries, you won’t find any striped cats over there. So, this is the starting. So, where the nature starts any species, the whole nature supports to that animal or the plant or anything like that. So, if you see the colours of mountains which are pretty similar to the skin of tiger.
M: Yeah. That’s true, yeah.
A: If you talk about the soil formation its similar to the skin of the tiger. If you see all the herbs, shrubs and bushes which is all similar to the colour of tiger skin. So, they are all supporting. Even if you talk about ‘93-94 which was the worst time for Ranthambhore when the maximum poaching was done but still tiger left because of the habitat. People can’t approach up to that place. Tiger saved themselves on that place. So, this is a specialty of Ranthambhore.
M: Yeah! Great. So, Other than the tiger, what else can we see in Ranthambhore? What kind of birds, plants?
A: It’s a huge fauna and flora of Ranthambhore. Almost like 350 species of birds here. Going towards south and other parts of Himalayas during their breeding plumage, they are very interesting. After that we have very interesting residential birds over here; like lark, pipit, [unintelligible 00:19:40]. You won’t find on other places also. If you go towards about Bharatpur bird sanctuary which is called Ghana which is about 200km from here. So, only specially you will find in Ranthambhore all these species. If you talk, there is a very colourful bird which is called Indian Pitta which is subcontinent migratory from south and now they are in Ranthambhore and they are breeding. So, this is exact time when you find their nest on the trees. And, they have nine different colours and they are most beautiful and after rain they will take their chicks back to the south.
M: I remember when I was on safari with Vivek, the thing that impressed me the most about naturalist guides, how you can identify every bird from like so far away. I can’t even see the thing and you know exactly what it is! *laughs*. I think that’s amazing.
A: You know when it’s, if you don’t know your business, you are failure *laughs*. So, you have to know each and everything about that. You are completely right.
M: And how about the animals, I have never seen a sloth, that’s the one thing I have not seen in Ranthambhore, you’ve got sloths there I believe.
A: Yes, we got sloth but it depends on the timings. When the fruits are on the tree, there are more sightings. And, these sloth bears, they don’t have serious hibernation; only for short time, when the winters are too cold, then they can go for like two weeks or three weeks of hibernation, otherwise not. So, it’s not a serious kind of hibernation, they want they can go otherwise don’t. So, it depends on the timings of the year, when the fruits are in the trees, you will see more sloth bears.
M: What else do you have there in the forest?
A: We have 37 species of mammals and 80% of them are nocturnal. If you try to talk about porcupine, hedgehog and other mammals.
M: So, it really comes alive at night-time, the park?
A: Yeah, yeah. And the best thing, around, we have lots of activities around the park also, which are with those animals which, with those animals which are not in the park but on the peripheries. We talk about the wolf, the Indian Wolf and we have a sand river called Banas where you can find these wolves and other small mammals around that area, even jackals over there and foxes over there so there are lots of species which are on the peripheries also.
M: And then you have the leopard and crocodile.
A: Yeah! Yeah, no, we have a good number of different cats, so if you talk the smallest cat which is Rusty Spotted Cat which is also found in Ranthambhore, but it is not easy to see. So, like Rusty Spotted Cat and we have Jungle Cat, um melanistic cats, we have black cats also here.
M: So, do the leopard and the tiger live harmoniously with each other?
A: Yeah, always the cats are made to kill, so always the big predator will kill a small predator, so it’s same thing in Ranthambhore. So, if you talk about tiger, tiger territory and leopard are on the same territory also and I got twice chances in life killing of leopard by tiger so they are made to kill so they don’t want any predator in their area.
M: So, how many… how many tigers do u have at the moment in Ranthambhore?
A: See, official figure, exact official figure we have 55 adults and 16 cubs in the park. So total 71.
A: But this is last year’s census. It’s annual census and annual report is declared by the forest secretary, so, but, my thinking about six male tigers are out of the park because we have similar female and similar number of male in the park. It’s not a good ratio but nature is nature.
M: And, um what do you think is the most interesting thing about tigers that perhaps we don’t know, like, an interesting hidden fact?
A: Yeah see, ah, tigers are very intelligent and very smart. So, they have their communication system, either chemical or with their voice. So, if you follow a tiger like sometimes tiger walks on the road in Ranthambhore, so if you follow about half an hour, so what they do with the chemical talking, they always choose the bent trees, like if a bent tree is like this, they spray their urine on the bent tree, so the liquid don’t evaporate in the weather, it remains under the tree. So, it goes for weeks that smell and it tells the other tigers “don’t come in my area, get lost!”.
M: That’s very clever, I knew about the territory thing, but I had no idea they tried to find these curved trees.
A: And sometimes, if you notice, when they do the poo, they rub their back legs on the poo, because when the tiger does his scat, there is a liquid comes around that area. He rubs his back legs in that scat, and then walks, because that chemical goes kilometres by their feet by their walking. It’s another way to alert other tigers, “this is my territory don’t come here”. So, this a way, yeah!
M: And Vivek, perhaps you could tell us how long you would suggest visitors to stay in Ranthambhore, and what would be the ideal itinerary in your eyes?
V: Firstly, Maddie, in my opinion like at least two nights [and] three safaris, At least two nights [and] three safaris. Otherwise depends on interest of the tourist you know. They can stay, basically, better if they stay three nights and four safaris. They can go many things surrounding the, surrounding the national park and they can like if they come Ranthambhore on the first day, they come Ranthambhore on the noon time, they can get the same day afternoon drive. They come in the afternoon first day, they can go to the Ranthambhore Fort visit and they can continue the safari on second day. And other, like for the bird watching, Surwal Lake is also very good to see many migratory birds and the residential birds also.
V: So, it’s an excursion for like three nights, otherwise like two nights three safaris is very good. They must take three safaris to spot a big cat.
M: Ok, and talking about the fort, Ashlesh can you tell us a little bit about Ranthambhore Fort? How is it different from, you know, all the other forts in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur?
A: Oh, it’s totally different from that. If you talk about Ranthambhore Fort, it’s one of the oldest fort in the state. As the historians says, that it was built up in 944AD, but it’s before that. What we get the architect, which is part of the south and uh some historians say it is during 15AD and all these kinds of things. So, uh as the fort was very intelligently made, as you see the fort situation from three side, it have a natural protection because there was a great fault of the Aravalli’s, where the two mountain ranges disturbed and moved from each other. So, this fort was the place where the great fault of Aravalli mountain ranges happens. So, it is away from the other mountain range specially the fort area. If you see the fort situation from three side, it is completely steep because it was broken on that time and the fault was happen. So, this was intelligently chosen to build the fort. Another important thing, because it was kind of a big city on that time where all the families, militaries and the king lives on the fort because fort is in 6.5 sq. km, so very intelligently made, it dig out the stones from one place which is later on used to fill the water of rain, so that it was used and the stone was taken to build up the fort.
M: Very intelligent!
A: Yeah, yeah! If you see the fort, it is completely different from Jaipur, Agra or Delhi. If you see the architecture over there, there were small windows because we have windstorms here, we have sandstorms here, so very intelligently made. The main palace of king was in three layers, in three stories. If you take the ground one which is used in the summer, then second floor in the winters and the third one is in the monsoon, so they get the rid of the humidity and all this, get the fresh air. So, very intelligently made. And it is a very thick about two-and-a-half feet thick boundary all over the fort. And specially on the fort, we have natural springs, because in desert we don’t have regular rains, if sometime there is no rain, so there is no problem of drinking water, so they have chosen specially this mountain range to build the fort of this natural springs.
M: What I thought what is interesting is all the different temples in the fort, so you’ve got temples of different religions; Jain temples, Hindu temples.
A: Yeah, yeah! You can find all three different religion here like Muslims, they have mosques and tombs over there. Jains they have beautiful temples of Jain and Hindus. And if you see the different mountain ranges around the fort, have you noticed there are some watch towers over there?
M: No, I don’t think I did.
A: So, every mountain range, on top there is a watch tower. If enemy is coming from 20km away, they get the message within two minutes. They are ready.
M: So, do you know when people stopped living in this fort? Like, around what year?
A: See, up to official record was up to 1966.
A: When the government has taken over all the fort and palaces. Up to that, 1966 have a record and after they have empty the fort. The most of the things were taken over and ruins happened, nobody has taken care of it.
M: It looks wonderful as a back drop for Ranthambhore National Park and that something you don’t get in, let’s say, Bandhavgarh or Kanha. That’s unique.
A: Yeah, yeah, its unique. And even on the top of fort, you can see some tigers over there and even Vivek was telling he spotted a leopard on the wall, so I have seen regularly tigers even the Machli was going to the fort, I have seen her on the way and Arrowhead which is the granddaughter of the Machli, she is also going to the fort, so it’s part of their habitat so they are using there, and if you seen in this lockdown, you can find lots of scats on top of the fort of the tiger and leopard also because nobody was there and all taken by the animals, this my right yeah! *laughs*
M: *laughs* Yeah! So, since you have been back in the park after lockdown, have you seen tigers?
A: Oh yes, yeah. I have seen tigers.
M: Do you think the lockdown had any effect on them? On their behaviour?
A: Yeah! That’s right. Because animals forget the things easily after a limited time, they forget things. So, some animals are pretty not used to that. As they saw the Jeep, they run away from there.
A: So, this happens. Nature is taking over here! *laughs*
M: So Vivek, there’s a lot of hotels in Ranthambhore. Can you tell us what your favourite one is? Or ones, if you have more than one?
V: uh Madam, Maddie, the hotels, if the people coming in the wildlife, they must, first they must select the hotels which is connected to the nature. So, all those hotels connecting to the nature with a good plantation, with a good gardens, good area, these are my favorite hotels.
V: Like Oberoi, Sher Bagh you know. Other also resorts like good gardens, good plantations in the hotels. Nature connecting hotels always good in the wildlife like if you stay in the building hotels, the tourist can stay in many places when they going to move in other places.
M: Yeah, Sher Bagh is really nice because the gardens are not, like, manicured, they’re just wild. So, it’s like it’s in the forest so it’s really nice.
V: Yeah! You can observe many birds in the property if you staying there.
A: And another thing that if you are close to the park, in such kind of resort, proper wildlife resorts, you can listen the night activities. So, it’s very interesting.
A: Like, uh, there are few hotels around the uh, close to the peripheries. So, even the animals they jump in the hotels also.
M: Yeah, I heard that sometimes the hotels catch tigers and leopard on the CCTV?
A: Yeah that’s right!
M: But, I mean, our guests don’t need to be scared about that. It’s not a threat.
A: No, it’s not a threat. It’s like an adventure, don’t go on other side. *laughs* So, it’s an adventure, if you see something in front of, like if a deer comes next to your tent “oh wow, deer comes to me!” so that’s kind of a thing happens.
M: As long as it doesn’t jump on the bonnet, then it’s all good! *laughs*
A: Yeah! But these cases are once in blue moon.
M: Yeah *laughs*.
M: Okay, well, thank you so much for sharing all this knowledge with us today, thank you so much and I hope I’ll be back to Ranthambhore soon and our guests as well.
V: Sure, sure.
A: You are most welcome.