Ranthambhore -- for many decades the hunting preserve of the princes of Jaipur -- covers a mere 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) but offers a fascinating combination of crumbling monuments, living temples, wild beauty, and your best chance to spot a wild tiger. Set within a high, jagged escarpment, Ranthambhore Fort (save a few hours for a visit) has towered over the park's forests for nearly a thousand years and has witnessed many a bloody combat -- even the Mughal emperor Akbar fought a battle for supremacy here in the 16th century. Inside the fort (open dawn-dusk at no cost) lie a number of ruined palaces, step wells, and a celebrated Ganesha temple visited every year in September by two million pilgrims who come to worship during the Lord Ganesha's birthday. But it is the forests, that lie shimmering in the gorges below, scattered with more ancient crumbling monuments, that attract the foreign pilgrims, who come during the winter months to catch a glimpse of the mighty Bengal tiger. Sightings are recorded fairly regularly -- it is said that between 75% and 95% of all the photographs ever taken of a tiger in the wild have been taken in Ranthambhore. This has meant that the 26-odd tigers living here have become totally habituated to human observation and are almost entirely indifferent to the sight and sound of vehicles and camera flashes.
The success of the park is due in no small measure to the efforts of Fateh Singh Rathore. A member of the princely family of Jodhpur, Rathore was made field director of Ranthambhore in 1972, the year tiger hunting was banned in India. Almost single-handedly, Rathore mapped and built the park's roads and persuaded 12 entire villages to move voluntarily, having arranged financial compensation and constructed new villages with modern facilities that included schools, wells, and electricity. He also used a powerful spiritual argument: It is the tiger that always accompanies the goddess and demon-slayer Durga (who embodies the power of good over evil), so it therefore deserves protection; however, its survival remains forever compromised in a habitat shared with humans.
Under Rathore's protection, the Ranthambhore tiger population increased from 13 to 40, and his dedicated study and photography of the subjects brought much of the tiger's beauty and plight into the international spotlight. But at no small cost -- Rathore was awarded the WWF International Valour Award after a mob of villagers, angry at no longer having access to their ancestral lands for grazing and hunting, attacked him, shattering his kneecaps and fracturing his skull. On his release from the hospital, Rathore simply returned to the village and challenged them to do it again.
After a brief scare in the early 1990s, when poaching (apparently by the park's own wardens) almost halved the resident tiger population, numbers stabilized by the year 2000. Today, people like Rathore and Valmik Thapar, one of India's foremost campaigners for the protection of the tiger, are once again fighting a crucial battle against widespread poaching; they argue that the authorities set up for the protection of the reserve are doing little. In fact, unofficial stories tell that Rathore was summarily banned form the park at one stage, having been too vocal against corrupt officials and their hopeless policies. But Rathore and Thapar were proven right; in mid-2005 an independent committee appointed to carry out a tiger census discovered that numbers in Ranthambhore had dwindled from 40 to 26, in spite of the presence of several new cubs. Some local tiger aficionados are more positive, however, and will remind you that by mid-2007 there had been a 2-year period without any poaching incidents; apparently there are now six cubs in the tourist zone and 12 in the entire reserve.
If you want to understand the tiger politics of the region, you will no doubt find yourself engaged in intense discussion at Sher Bagh and Ranthambhore Bagh, both good accommodations. Fateh Singh's daughter-in-law manages Sher Bagh, while his son Goverdhan, a doctor, runs the nearby charitable hospital for the welfare of local people; it's one of the best-run rural hospitals in India. They also run an excellent rural school (visitors are welcome to visit both the school and hospital) -- all this based on the philosophy that unless one develops solutions in concert with local people, it won't be possible to save the tiger for posterity. With an estimated 90,000 humans and almost a million livestock living within a 5km (3-mile) radius of the park, the pressure on this island of wilderness remains immense, but its popularity and the efforts of many wildlife supporters will hopefully stand it in good stead. You can also go to the website of Travel Operators For Tigers (www.toftiger.org), a U.K.-based organization promoting responsible tiger tourism and tiger research.
While tiger sightings are relatively common, don't expect the experience to be necessarily a romantic one. It can be ruined by the presence of other vehicles, particularly the open-topped 20-seater Canters buses with whooping kids on board. Only a limited number of vehicles are allowed at any sighting, but this regulation is not always respected, hence the designation of different routes to keep number densities spread throughout the park. Even if you don't spot a tiger (and be prepared for this eventuality), the sheer physical beauty of the park is worth experiencing -- from lotus-filled lakes and dense jungle to craggy, boulder-strewn cliffs and golden grasslands. Other species worth looking for include caracal (a wildcat), crocodile, nilgai (large antelope resembling cattle), chital (spotted deer), black buck (delicate buck with spiraling horns), chinkara (a dainty gazelle), and sambar (their distinctive barking call often warns of the presence of a tiger nearby). The park also has leopards (notoriously shy), wild boars, and sloth bears, and is rich in birdlife -- over 400 resident and migrant species.
Note, too, that park authorities are planning to introduce a small safari park that should provide impatient visitors who are hell-bent on spotting tiger with an almost zoolike experience. If you're desperate, ask your host about this development.