I have done many amazing things during my time in India but seeing a tiger in the wild is definitely a highlight. Nothing sends shivers down the spine quite like the striking flash of orange emerging from the dense verdant foliage of the Indian jungle. This post is about the day I met Arrowhead – Ranthambhore’s most regal tigress.
The Indian subcontinent is one of the very few regions left that still has wild tigers, with records indicating that almost half of the estimated number of tigers left in the world are found in India. You only need to visit any palace in Rajasthan to see vast paintings of wealthy Maharajahs or British colonisers proudly displaying a tiger trophy in order to understand why this endangered animal faces extinction today. Yet despite a past history of extreme hunting (and a few poaching threats), Ranthambhore is considered to be the park where a tiger sighting is most likely. Thankfully, today’s visitors to the park want to seek out the fearsome predator in order to shoot it with a camera rather than a rifle.
I will save the details of our numerous safaris in Ranthambhore for another post – suffice to say there is a rather crafty scam operating by the local travel agencies in the way the tickets are issued to park visitors; therefore, it is recommended that you take a number of safari tours if you desperately hope to see a tiger. It appears that many people leave the park disappointed – these tigers are wild, after all; they are not caged or brought out to satisfy public demand.
It was not until the third safari of my trip that I got lucky. We were in a canter, a large cantankerous vehicle that holds 20 tourists – a mixture of Indian and foreign nationals. As we drove down the hill, we saw a cluster of vehicles parked underneath a rocky outcrop. From the way people were climbing on their seats and poising their cameras, we knew a tiger was near: there is only one animal in Ranthambhore that could capture such attention.
“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” – Meeting Arrowhead
Ranthambhore’s Park Authority controls the number of vehicles that enter the park every day, so there are not too many trucks in the zones at any one time; still, being behind 3 other canters and a couple of jeeps meant that we were at the back of the line. The guide assured us that there was a tiger sleeping under the rock, but we could see nothing.
After waiting for around 10 minutes, people began to complain. We could see tourists in the other vehicles snapping pictures with their phones and cameras, but unless the tiger moved we would not be getting any photos of our own. There seems to be some etiquette amongst the drivers, however, because five minutes later two of the canters pulled away and we had our chance to get closer.
The view wasn’t great as the remaining canter and jeeps still partially obscured her, but sure enough, sleeping under the rock, lay a tigress; her tail lazily flicking away the summer heat. The guide introduced her as Arrowhead, granddaughter of Ranthambhore’s great matriarch, Machli – a dominant tigress who was once filmed overpowering a 14-foot crocodile. Machli’s granddaughter seems to be well on track to becoming another Ranthambhore favourite.
Wow, she was beautiful. We held our breath hoping that she would lift her magnificent head and look in our direction just once. Sadly, Arrowhead didn’t wish to co-operate and 10 minutes later it was our turn to drive away in order to allow a recently arrived canter to see her.
For the next hour we drove around the remainder of Zone 4. The sun was low in the sky and the minutes of our three-hour safari were rapidly draining away. We saw plenty of deer, buffalo, and birds, but no more tigers – not even at the large water hole for which I’d been holding out so much hope. Our canter began its return journey.
As we passed the road where we had seen Arrowhead, we noticed that there were still two jeeps parked at the spot of the former sighting. The driver pulled a hard-right to investigate. Arrowhead was still there, exactly as she had been before, but this time we could get a little closer. The drivers pulled up once more.
“What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry? ”
A collective gasp rose from all three vehicles simultaneously. Just as our driver had announced that we were to leave, Arrowhead rose from her spot and turned to look directly at us. Opening her mouth wide in a lazy yawn, she started walking in our direction. The cameras went crazy.
Walking around the rock, it was clear that she would make for the water hole. The jeeps scattered in all directions before her as she majestically strolled across the pathway in front of us, stopping to pose with all the elegance and poise of a leading lady at the Oscars.
Arrowhead is the star of Ranthambhore and she knows it.
The pursuit was on – two vehicles went up the road, two went down – and they all came together by the water hole as Arrowhead appeared through the trees. Playing to her audience (or perhaps patiently biding her time until they go away), she sat down right amongst all the vehicles, showing that she is no stranger to the flood of tourists that enter the park and aim their cameras at her every day. This, of course, raises questions on the ethics of a tiger safari. Undoubtedly, Arrowhead is a wild tiger, but she is accustomed to humans. Her behaviour patterns have altered to adapt to constant human presence. It must be noted here that this does not make the activity of viewing wild tigers from an open top vehicle completely safe – I still shudder to think how easy her prey would have been that day if she chose to attack any of the jeeps.
“In what distant deeps or skies, burnt the fire of thine eyes? ”
Silent and awestruck, we watched Arrowhead and she watched us – almost as if she was daring us to leave first, which we did around 15 minutes later.
Arrowhead had claimed her territory back.
Back at our lodgings (the gorgeous luxury tents that I wrote about here) we found an interesting website about the tigers of Ranthambhore where we read that Arrowhead has indeed laid claim to the water hole of Zone 4; over the last year she has isolated herself from her mother and siblings and chased them from her territory. She is rapidly inheriting grandmother, Machli’s former moniker, ‘Lady of the Lake’.
It seems that spotting Arrowhead in Zone 4 is fairly likely – many of the other tiger spottings we heard of that week had been in Zone 4, but which zone you get at Ranthambhore is a lottery. Stay tuned for my next post on how to ensure that you get lucky in the Ranthambhore lottery.
Have you seen any amazing animals in the wild? If so, what was it and where? Please leave a comment below.