Tiger Safari India Ranthambhore - the zone system explained!
Tiger Safari India. Ranthambhore national park - The Zone System explained
It’s coming up to 20 years since I first visited this very special corner of Rajasthan and saw my first wild tiger; infact a tigress called Machli back in February 1997, who was the mother of the much celebrated ‘second’ Machli, the star of a number of excellent wildlife documentaries and who sadly passed away this year at the ripe old age of 19.
Ranthambhore tiger safari
Back in those days Ranthambhore national park was a quiet ‘backwater’ of a state/region much more famous for its hill top forts and colourful cities such as Jaipur and Jodhpur. The odd western backpacker (like me!) and occasional western photography groups made it down here, but few stayed very long and tiger sightings were not a regular occurrence. However this was a tiger sanctuary like no other, with huge presence and larger than life charisma and it soon works it wonder on me and left an impression that refuses to dim despite the many ‘growing pains’ it has suffered over the years. Back in those days I drove my good friend Vipul Jains moped up the steep road which leads to the 10th century fort. From here I had a birds eye view of the magnificent Padam Lake and no-one would disturbs me for hours; as I watched white-backed vultures soar along the fort ramparts.
When to visit Ranthambhore national park
After a good monsoon (the park re-opens in October) this is quite possibly one of the most beautiful national parks in the world to photograph. The three main lakes overflow with water and huge male sambar stags have their giant antlers covered in weed, as they munch greedily under the surface of the lake. Lazy marsh mugger crocodiles are on hand to surprise the young or old deers and from November onwards, a colourful ensemble of migratory wading birds fill the lake with colour and noise. However Ranthambhore national park is famous for tigers and it is when one of these magnificent striped predators start their late night hunting; that the real action begins.
We feel the best time to visit Ranthambhore national park for tigers is either early winter (late November/early December); after the busy festivals of Diwali but before the really cold weather that can suppress tiger sightings in late December/early January. Alternatively you could wait until early February, if you want that beautiful golden light and magical tiger photographs; with the impressive backdrop of Ranthambhore Fort.
Although the light is very harsh from April onwards, the reason why professional wildlife photographers visit at this time of year and consider it to be the best time to see tigers in Ranthambhore, is the relative lack of water in the park (it varies from year to year depending on the strength of the Monsoon!) and to a degree tiger activity is ‘concentrated’ near the remaining waterholes inside the park. In particular a tigress with young cubs at Ranthambhore national park will need to regularly visit such waterholes to ensure the tiger family remains healthy. We have also witnessed tiger kills near these same water bodies, as desperately thirsty deer and grey langurs lower their normal.
Ranthambhore National Park, The Zone System explained
Let me start with a good piece of advice. If you are currently planning or about to book a tiger safari in Ranthambhore national park and the booking window has already opened (this can easily be checked on the government website for jeep bookings!) and the local or international agents has promised you – or even ‘guaranteed you’ a jeep on a specific zone from 1 to 5 (core area zones) then I would ‘run a mile’ from these people. To be clear, as of September 2015, it was possible to book zones 1 to 7 online via the Rajasthan government website and from August 2016 (the year I write this blog) it is possible to book all of the tiger safari zones, which is 1 to 10. As you can imagine the core zones sell out within 1 or 2 days of the jeep booking window opening, so be very careful about dealing with agents who promise
Please ignore all the advice and rants on social media and Trip Advisor about it is not worth booking a jeep safari in Ranthambhore unless you get zones 2, 3 and 4 – what silly nonsense! Not only that, it is exactly that type of poor ill-informed advice that puts pressure on the delicate eco-systems in tiger sanctuaries like Ranthambhore and attracts visitors on short, poor quality tiger safaris with the sole aim of just ticking the box and boasting to their friends that they saw a wild tiger. That in itself is fine if you have a small budget; but to then blame it on the fact you visited the wrong zone, rather than realise less time in the park gives you less chance to see tigers - is simply lying to yourself.
We have personally visited every zone in Ranthambhore national park and have seen tigers or leopard in every one of those zones. Many a time visitors have searched in vain for a tiger in zone 2 or 3 and then seen a tiger walking on the road as they drive back to their hotel for the night – its just luck, like many things in life. This is one of the most beautiful wildlife sanctuaries in the world. Please respect it and follow the adage that ‘wildlife is wildlife’ and there is always the chance to see tigers in Ranthambhore…….and always the chance not to see them! We cannot guarantee it and we don’t want to guarantee it ever! If you want a guaranteed tiger sighting then please go to a zoo and save your money.