Amarsingh lives over those hills to the north, where the Banas River forms a boundary of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve; we’re on the southern side, near the gates of India’s most popular tiger-safari destination. What makes Ranthambhore so popular is not only that it falls just outside India’s Golden Triangle of Delhi (340 kilometres away), Agra (290 kilometres away) and Jaipur (180 kilometres away) – it’s also home to more than 60 tigers, some of which are seen almost daily by tourists. That’s why we’ve brought you here: because Amarsingh’s story is a tale about stripes.
Ranthambhore gets its name from two adjacent hills: Rann and Thambhore, on which ‘our’ fort stands. This four-square-kilometre fortress was built sometime between the fifth and 10th centuries and since then it has been a settlement, fort and prison. These days people climb the ancient stone steps to visit old Hindu temples, but we come here because the further you wander, the more interesting the ruins become … and views across southern Ranthambhore are spectacular.
Those golden-grassed hills below us are the empire of the Lady of the Lakes; a 20-year-old tigress whose given name, Machali, means ‘fish’ in Hindi. Those lakes, fringed with tall grasses that turn electric copper in the late afternoon, hold enormous marsh crocodiles and yet elegant spotted deer still wade gracefully through the shallow water. It looks peaceful now but dramatic battles have been fought down there: water flying, limbs flailing, cameras clicking wildly and, more often than not, Machali victorious.
Until the early 20th century the forests of Ranthambhore were the exclusive hunting grounds of the Jaipur royal family; grazing and felling of trees was forbidden, but as India’s population grew, pressure on the forests increased. In 1955 the forests were declared the Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary (Sawai Madhopur is a town about 17 kilometres from where we’re sitting), but legal hunting continued for another 18 years until Ranthambhore’s tiger population was almost annihilated. Something needed to be done, and so when the Indian government and the World Wide Fund for Nature initiated Project Tiger in 1973, this sanctuary became one of the first under the scheme’s protection; in 1980 part of it was declared a national park.
Over the next decade the park’s tiger population increased and Ranthambhore became known as the best place in the world to see tigers; in the early Nineties and again in 2003, however, numbers plummeted when poachers fed a growing demand for tiger skins. The population has since flourished and now there are more than 60 tigers in the park.
Some say it’s Machali who’s responsible for the park’s success while she’s raised nine cubs here, the Lady of the Lakes has been highly visible to tourists and she’s become the most photographed wild tiger in the world.
According to pressure group Travel Operators for Tigers, she alone is responsible for earning over $100 million for Indian tourism since she became the dominant female in 1998. Fantastic sightings and photographs attract more tourists, and more tourists often mean better protection for wildlife.
Yesterday I saw Machali’s grandson, Arrowhead, right there where that vehicle is parked on the edge of Lotus Lake (there are no lotuses, however, during the 2003/4 drought wild boar ate all the roots). We’d heard alarm calls of spotted deer so our guide turned off the engine and we waited and watched. By the time Arrowhead sauntered out of the grass, five packed park vehicles with protruding selfie sticks were capturing his every move. Ranthambhore is divided into zones and vehicles may not cross from one into another; we followed him to the zone boundary, his head hung low and enormous feet leaving deep pugmarks in the dry earth.