Home Magazines Cover Story Ranthambhore – The Tiger’s Realm

Ranthambhore – The Tiger’s Realm

Text and Photographs by Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi VadraSanctuary Cover Story August 2011:Ranthambhore has inspired a whole generation of tiger defenders down the years. This latest addition to the archive is a stunning visual and textual articulation of one of the world's best known tiger habitats by Panthera tigris' next line of defence.


The idea of this book was born out of a love for Ranthambhore, an extraordinary wilderness, and for the tiger that rules it. We have been captivated by this charismatic and powerful ‘Lord of Life', from the moment we were introduced to it, many years ago. That profound attraction has endured. Doing whatever we possibly can to protect tigers and their habitat, has become a passion we share.

Ranthambhore is the finest place in the world to observe and photograph these magnificent and powerful big cats. The dry-deciduous and semi-arid flora, the breathtaking natural topography, the ruins of Rajput and Mughal pleasure palaces, cenotaphs and medieval gateways that are scattered around the reserve, make this forest stand apart. The area encompassing the tiger reserve and national park gets its name from one of India's largest and most impressive fortresses, which stands proud in the heart of the jungle. Dating back to the 8th century A.D., it has been coveted by many kings and emperors. Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Delhi conquered it following an epic siege from a Rajput prince, Rana Hamir Deo in 1301. A couple of centuries later, the Great Mughal, Jalaluddin Akbar personally led his army to capture Ranthambhore in 1569. Akbar's grandson, Prince Khurram – better known as the Emperor Shah Jahan – demanded this impregnable jungle fortress be given to him for the safekeeping of his family and harem, if his father forced him to lead the Kandahar Campaign. When the Mughal empire crumbled, Ranthambhore became a part of the princely state of Jaipur and the surrounding jungles a shooting reserve of the royal family. In 1972 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi introduced the Indian Wildlife Protection Act in Parliament, banning the killing of wild animals. Soon thereafter, she spearheaded the creation of Project Tiger and Ranthambhore was among the first areas to be chosen as a tiger reserve. By the early 1980s it had been transformed into a pristine tiger kingdom.

Today, people from all over the world flock to Ranthambhore to soak in its vibrant natural beauty, its glorious history, its diverse wildlife, and of course, to see tigers in their element.

To celebrate Ranthambhore, we decided to publish a selection of our pictures, sifted from a vast archive that we have built up over the years. These pictures are our favourites and all but one spread, taken in 1985, are recent. We have spent a considerable amount of time with many of the tigers and other creatures found among these pages, and have grown to know them well.

It is our sincere hope that this natural treasure of ours lives on and continues to inspire future generations to appreciate, respect and fiercely preserve this invaluable legacy.

Q&A with Jaisal Singh

Sanctuary: What was the genesis of this book?
JS: We all wanted to celebrate Ranthambhore and share the fantastic experiences we have been privileged to have had there, over the years. We hope this book will inspire many people to do their part in helping to preserve India's rich and diverse natural heritage.

Sanctuary: Do you think tourism will ever actually become a conservation tool?
JS: We have a brilliant opportunity in India to use tourism as a conservation tool as they have very successfully in Africa. Wildlife tourism in India is in its infancy, centred around only a handful of our many hundred sanctuaries. Forest Departments across India need to work together with responsible tourism operators and embrace them rather than viewing them as ‘the enemy'. If done properly, like it has been done in fragile ecosystems in Kenya – it could well become a primary tool.

Sanctuary: This book is probably out of the reach of most people, do you plan to use the Internet to reach a wider audience?
JS: We are not considering an ‘e-book' at the moment.

Sanctuary: You grew up in Ranthambhore under the tutelage of Fateh Singh Rathore, Valmik Thapar and Tejbir Singh. What do you see as your own role in securing its future?
JS: We all do whatever we possibly can to secure the future of our natural heritage, but I would like to do a lot more. The huge divide between the Government/Forest Department and us who are on the ‘outside' prevents us from doing more. Most of us on the outside are constantly accused of having vested interests. The government needs to realise that the vested interest is actually a mutual interest – to ensure the protection of our natural heritage. Everyone needs to work together and bridge this silly divide which is causing unnecessary damage.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

Ranthambhore is the finest place in the world to observe and photograph tigers. The dry-deciduous and semi-arid flora, the breathtaking natural topography, the ruins of Rajput and Mughal pleasure palaces, cenotaphs and medieval gateways that are scattered around the reserve, make this forest stand apart.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

An adolescent Sultanpur male cub investigates the source of a distant sound while lying on a track undisturbed by the presence of our jeep. An extensive network of jungle tracks criss-cross the park and is frequently used by tigers and many other animals. Tigers being soft-padded seem to prefer walking on them, leaving their imprints. These pugmarks are used as a primary tracking tool, and provide a fair idea about the size of the animal and approximately when it passed by.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

The Berda mother cools off in a pool at Aadi-Daanth ka Nullah. The tigress had spent the day devouring a sambar doe she killed early that morning.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

Two young tigresses, Brat and Split fighting to carve out their individual territories. At the time, they were just about two years old, and in the process of going it on their own. One evening we followed the entire family down Kamaldhar to Nalghati. Their mother veered off to our left, when one of the females, Brat, trotted by our jeep and attacked her sibling, who had moved further down the track. Split responded with a blood curdling roar. Brat lunged at her and wrestled her to the ground. Echoing off both sides of the valley, their roars were deafening as the rest of the jungle fell silent.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

A caracal walks boldly by our jeep near Doodh Baori. Extremely rare to see, I have seen them just five times over my thirty years in the forest. On only two of these occasions have we managed to photograph this shy and elusive cat. The caracal is known to be the quickest and is certainly among the most graceful of felines.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

Split observes her prey – a herd of unsuspecting chital – in the open maidan between Padam Talab and Jhalra. On this occasion she allowed the herd of chital to pass by.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

Ranthambhore is home to another big cat – the leopard. After a busy and satisfying week in the jungle, I was catching up on much needed rest at the camp one morning. Around nine o'clock Yusuf came running to my tent and woke me with the news that a tiger had ‘treed' a leopard right below the ramparts of the fort. I instantly jumped out of bed and rushed off to find this beautiful leopardess high up on a tree. She waited patiently for the tiger to move away before climbing down and darting into the thick jungle surrounding the old fort walls.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

This family's day out was rather ill-timed! We were following Split up the main road that leads to the fort when this motley collection of five came cruising down the road on their motorcycle. Startled out of their wits at seeing a tiger walking straight towards them, they screeched to a halt, abandoned their bike and bolted back towards the fort. The tigress watched nonchalantly! Ranthambhore's tigers are accustomed to seeing people in jeeps, whom they do not view as their natural prey, a threat or disturbance – but motorcycles and more so, people running on foot, can prompt a tiger to charge in self-defence. This was a lucky crew on both counts!

With Tigers In The Wild
By Jaisal Singh

It was in the winter of 1979 that I first came to Ranthambhore. Aged just eight weeks or so, I do not remember anything of that visit, but am told that I did see my first tiger.

My parents, Malvika and Tejbir, first visited in 1974 while making a documentary on the bird and jungle life of Rajasthan and had pitched camp under the great banyan tree at Jogi Mahal. This is when they met, and befriended, Fateh Singh Rathore, then Warden of Ranthambhore. It was under his management that the park would become the world's premier tiger reserve. But back in the mid-1970s, tiger sightings were extremely rare even at night, and buffalo calves were often used as bait to lure tigers in order to see them. Many villages existed in the forest area, making the animals wary and shy of human presence.

The villages in the national park area were finally moved out by 1977-78 with great persuasion, skill and determination by Fateh Singh and resettled on more fertile agricultural land outside the reserve, with access to electricity, schooling, health care and markets, among other modern-day facilities. This was a seminal moment for Ranthambhore. With the villages relocated, tigers started to walk their territories during the day and by night, overturning conventional wisdom about their nocturnal behaviour. Even the presence of jeeps did not disturb them, and they would often use the vehicles to hide behind and ambush their prey. By the early 1980s the big cats had really come into their own, and the forest started to flourish.

From the mid-1970s to the end of the eighties my father and Valmik, my maternal uncle, were spending a lot of time in Ranthambhore, filming and documenting tigers, along with Fateh Singh Rathore. I thus had the privilege of spending my growing up years in the forest with them, learning the ways of the jungle. From as far back as I can remember, I was tiger obsessed! By the time I was five, I had my very own Nikon eM camera with a 105 mm. Nikkor lens and a pair of binoculars. We spent weeks and months at a time in Ranthambhore, so much so that I actually thought Jogi Mahal was our very own home in the wilderness!

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi VadraIn my childhood I was oblivious of the threats the tiger faced to its very survival, and its shrinking habitat, though I do remember an incident where Fateh kaka was mercilessly beaten-up by illegal graziers in the heart of the park, and left for dead. His driver, Sayeed, fortunately managed to drag him into the jeep and get him to a hospital in the nick of time. I was equally unaware of the dangers that lurked in the forest. One of my earliest recollections is of sleeping on charpoys in the open, under the banyan tree. The resident leopard would stroll past us every night to drink water from the nearby Padam Talab. Fateh kaka also trained me to be fearless in the forest at night, often daring me to walk into the tall grass where a tiger had recently been seen. From an early age I developed a keen sense of smell that helped me identify the presence of tigers in the vicinity.

An early experience that shaped my thinking about conservation was the efforts made by the Ranthambhore Foundation. Spearheaded by Valmik in 1988, along with some like-minded friends, including my parents, its mission was to create a harmonious understanding between man and nature, aiming to preserve Ranthambhore through the idea of ‘community conservation'. The Ranthambhore Foundation launched a primary health care initiative encompassing ninety-six villages around the park, an afforestation project, a dairy development scheme to encourage stall-feeding of cattle to reduce the pressure of grazing in the park, the promotion of alternative energy, informal education and other such activities. Goverdhan (Fateh kaka's son), a qualified doctor, was the Foundation's Field Director. He worked tirelessly and passionately to implement these initiatives on the ground, and continues to do so till today.

The 1980s were Ranthambhore's finest years. With a healthy population of tigers and all the other creatures that live under its umbrella, it was a wildlifer's paradise. But, sadly, this wasn't to last. Fateh Singh Rathore was posted out in the late 1980s and a new team was at the helm. In the summer of 1992 a poacher was arrested and his revelations were shocking. The operation of various poaching ‘gangs' in the park had almost halved tiger numbers. No one could predict whether the park would ever recover from this tragedy. However, with a stroke of luck it did. A committed forest officer, G.V. Reddy, was posted as the DFO, and it was under his dynamic functioning that the decline was halted and tiger numbers saw an increase. Ranthambhore reported over thirty five tigers in the core area at the beginning of the new millennium.

After a year finishing my education in England, I visited our farm at the edge of Ranthambhore in the spring of 2000. I spent a delightful month watching tigers and other wildlife in every corner of the park. Much enthused, I began to plot how to spend more time in Ranthambhore. The idea of a tented camp thus began to take shape in my head, to finally culminate in the setting-up of Sher Bagh, the tiger's garden. By October that year, we opened what was perhaps India's first luxury tented camp – one that would promote controlled, sustainable tourism, be ecologically friendly and yet provide high levels of comfort, service and above all, a true Ranthambhore experience.

Credit:Tiger Painting by Anjali Singh I had always wanted to live in Ranthambhore. It gave me an opportunity to spend long periods of time in the park, tracking tigers, filming and photographing them in order to better understand their behaviour. Among the many fantastic encounters, there is one that especially stands out. I was extremely fortunate to have been the first to witness and document a tigress killing a 15 ft. crocodile. With Priyanka's brother Rahul in my jeep, this rare spectacle unfolded just a hundred yards from Jogi Mahal, at the edge of Padam Talab, on a cold November evening in 2002. At dusk, a large mugger came out of the water and tried to appropriate the tigress Machhli's kill, forcing her to charge, and fight with this menacing adversary. She mortally wounded the mugger by sinking her canines into the nape of its neck, leaving it to die in the icy cold night. It is impossible to describe the blood-curdling roars, coupled with the ferocity with which the tigress wrestled and killed a huge Indian marsh crocodile. It remains the only such record to this day in the natural history of the tiger.

For me, this book is a culmination of my recent experiences in pursuit of this passion, accompanied by my wife Anjali, whose love of wildlife and Ranthambhore in particular, is infinite.

My Family and other Animals
By Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

It is forty five degrees Celsius, the sun has practically cooked us. We've been in the open jeep for at least four hours and still have another three to go. The children have drunk more Sprite than I'd allow them in a week. They're on a sugar high, which is manageable by itself but not exactly under control when it is coupled with a wildlife high. They are also covered in a thick layer of fine Ranthambhore dust. All attempts to Bedouinise them by wrapping their heads and faces up in scarves have failed.

I can't say I enjoy anything more than being confined to a jeep with them in the park. We're surrounded by the wilderness I love and there's absolutely no possibility of them escaping their mother's mad affections. Besides, they look at me with unusual awe when the tiger is around. It's almost as if they think I'd fight it off for them – well most of the time. Now and then they have decidedly dubious expressions on their little faces, as if their mother was the least trustworthy, most foolhardy woman in the world and they'd really much rather sit in someone else's jeep.

Anyhow, here we are, parked along the dirt road facing a depression into which two tigers have just sauntered. We've watched intently all morning. They've sniffed one another, cuddled, circled each other, sat many feet apart pretending disinterest and now look as if they might just decide to mate. My daughter has already asked me half a dozen times under her breath, “have they mated, mama?” and my son has decided he has a stomach ache. “Why do we have to see them mating?” he's muttered, following the question up with a pained expression on his face.

Credit:Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi VadraJaisal has informed us all that we are about to witness one of the rarest tiger moments ever. Anjali has been shifting elbows adjusting her camera patiently even though its body must be fire hot by now. I am looking forward to this moment, however undignified and voyeuristic it may be of me. Fornicating tigers might be of no interest to the rest of the world, but to a mother of two pre-teens it's a gift from God himself. What better way to skirt questions about the mysterious mechanics of reproduction than National Geographic “live”.

The tigress that has been lingering under a tree for a while approaches her mate. Just then a forest guard on an inordinately loud motorcycle rolls past oblivious to the scene unfolding below him. T-25 (our man the tiger) cocks his head up and looks straight at us. He crouches slightly, then with the swiftness of an arrow cutting the wind he turns his back to us and bolts.

Within seconds, he has vanished. He has bounded up the depression we have been staring at wide-eyed for the last four hours, leapt across the dirt road above it and disappeared into the hill. No wonder his other name is Zalim! T-17, (our lady, also known as Split) looks about as perplexed as we do or perhaps even more. She nods almost humanly into the vacant forest and walks away in the opposite direction. Just in case anyone imagined that getting the pictures in this book was a lark, it took us eight hours of waiting spread across two days just for those two!

I love the jungle, I always have. There is an unpredictability about it that is just beautiful. You never know where and when you will encounter the life you ought to live – untamed and feral. Everything is defined only by its own existence. Animals are what they are – unabashedly themselves.

The jungle of Ranthambhore lives its wildness well. Ruins of forgotten majesty lie overrun by the brush. Once resplendent forts have become the abode of wild animals. The lakes are deceptively placid, hiding ferocious crocodiles within their silent waters and golden blades of grass effortlessly play the evening light into tiger shadows. I love this jungle because it is old, older than any of us will ever be. Its constance is calming. I find myself seeking it out as often as my family will tolerate. My husband Robert has allowed the wild to grow on him as well. He quite enjoys our trips to Sher Bagh and enthusiastically joins early morning jungle drives. The children of course, already have a camera they argue over, not to mention photo credits!

I first came here as a thirteen year old. Driving around the jungle with my parents in much the same way my children do with me, I was enchanted by it. I think it was my father's love for nature that spirited itself into my being. I take photographs because he taught me to; no other reason at all really. I photograph what I notice. When I was younger I wanted to hold the moment. Now I have no wish to keep it, I just take the picture I see.

My camera is my diary of ever-changing images. I never thought I'd share its contents in this manner. It was Anjali's idea, quite casually aired on a jungle drive while we stuffed our faces with aloo masala chips. “We'll do it for us,” she said in her typically impish, matter of fact tone. So we did, and it's been great fun in the making.

Strokes and Stripes
By Anjali Singh

Long before I knew of Ranthambhore's existence, an appreciation of nature, and a childhood lived in close proximity to the natural world was a constant in my life. My parents lived on a working farm just outside Delhi and we had a home in the Himalayas, in Mashobra. In combination, these locations and landscapes moulded my mind to enjoy open spaces and admire the world of nature. Time spent in observation steered me to render the vision on canvas. At the age of ten, I was sent to a boarding school in the Swiss Alps and subsequently studied Fine Art for seven years in the hustle and bustle of London. It was only after I met Jaisal in 2003 that Ranthambhore entered my life, or rather, that I entered the world of Ranthambhore. Jaisal and his family have had a strong association with the region going back to the early 1970s, and the introduction proved contagious.

Painting has always provided me with a sense of release, it is a sanctuary to which I readily retreat for comfort and creation. My maternal grandmother is the artistically inclined member of our family. She taught me to see the form of a flower and translate it into an expression of my own. My years studying for a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Fine Art at Central St. Martins were but a logical progression from this. It was here that I also developed an interest in photography. I began experimenting with line, ink and photography as mediums for my art. Over the last decade I have worked with these mediums. Wildlife photography, in both India and Africa, has formed a part of my new work and in turn inspired a series of ink paintings, including ‘Portraits of Tigers'.

Ranthambhore is one of the finest wildernesses, which provides a window into the life of our national animal – the tiger. I have been lucky, and privileged to see these big cats within the Rajput and Mughal ruins that give Ranthambhore its character. Here, nature and its eternal guardian the tiger have reclaimed the relics of human history. The majestic quality of Ranthambhore's ‘iron clad' fort reigning above and tigers holding sway below is unmatched. For me personally, to experience this world has been a time of great joy and it has formed the basis of fascinating discoveries about the life and behaviour of this most charismatic of all cats. Each encounter is a unique experience that remains like a short story, complete and contained in the mind, untouched by anything else.

The most memorable moment for me has to be the time I saw ‘Zalim' (or less charmingly coded as T25) on our farm outside the tiger reserve. It was not a particularly long sighting as he snarled at the camera and soon after slunk away into the foliage. Nonetheless, the raw, untamed and unapologetic instinct of a wild animal, reinforced by the ferocity of his expression shall stay with me forever.

Sher Bagh, our small luxury tented camp at the edge of the park, is a base for us all. It is a home away from home and a gem nestling in nature's thicket. I can never remain away too long. The aroma of freshly baked bread winding its way through the tents, and the scents of Jaisal's cooking under the open sky on clay ovens, never lose their force of charm for me. The campfire is legendary, with interesting tales shared between strangers and friends. The camp is a place away from the chaos of city life – one that naturally induces a state of blissful calm while you sprawl on a camp-cot under a canopy of trees.


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Anirudh Nair

September 11, 2013, 05:12 PM
 Each story about Ranthambhore is a history lesson in itself. Everyone who loves tigers and wildlife have a special place in their hearts for this national park. Tigers roaming about freely in man-made structures within the park must be truly a sight to behold! Here is another beautiful piece written by Valmik Thapar on Ranthambhore: https://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/conservation/9496-ranthambhor-fortress-haven-for-indian-wildlife.html
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Jennifer Scarlott

September 10, 2013, 07:24 AM
 I agree Bittu. Every story of Ranthambhore is, by definition, Fateh Singh Rathore's story. This one is so evocative, of a time when one could camp under Jogi Mahal's great banyan tree, and watch leopards pass by in the darkness. Please visit Ranthambhore, and fight all your life to protect it. It is heaven on earth.
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Bittu Sahgal

September 10, 2013, 02:18 AM
 Ranthambhore has seen so many ups and downs, but it has thus far survived them all... only because of individuals who refused to give up, who fought the most powerful in the land when they had to, so tolerated not just insults, but physical assaults too. I miss Fateh Singh Rathore today. This is really his story and the story of those who he inspired to continue the battle well into the future