The National Parks
The two most famous parks in Rajasthan, both within easy striking distance of Jaipur, are Bharatpur-Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a 2,600-hectare (6,400-acre) tract of land that attracts the largest concentration and variety of birdlife in Asia; and Ranthambhore National Park, which enjoys an enviable reputation as the one area where you are virtually guaranteed to see a tiger. Also relatively close to Jaipur (110km/68 miles; 2 hr.) is Sariska National Park. The Sariska Palace Hotel, an aspiring luxury hotel built by the Machiavellian Maharaja Jay Singh of Alwar, is a rather lovely French-Indo concoction (if you like your buildings to resemble over-the-top confections) furnished with many original pieces (rotting trophies included). Reports of service have been less than satisfactory, and it's really only worthwhile to pop in for tea if you're in the area. By contrast, Ranthambhore is far more beautiful and has at least three excellent accommodations as well as a fascinating conservation history.
Project Tiger was a conservation initiative launched by Indira Gandhi, the late Indian prime minister, in 1973. Sadly it's central mission -- to not only halt but boost the fast declining number of Bengal tigers in India -- has been a failure, as the program has failed to prevent India's tiger population from plummeting to 1,411 (census data from Feb 2008): down from 3,642 in 2002, and an estimated 40,000 a century ago. The decline is largely as a result of poaching, but sadly mismanagement has also played a role, as evidenced recently when the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) airlifted three Bengal tigers (two females and a male) by helicopter from Ranthambore reserve to nearby Sariska, which has been tigerless for the past 4 years. A method developed in South Africa by pioneer conservationist Ian Player, this is the first relocation of its kind in India, and part of the WII £93 million emergency plan to revive the flagging population. However, recent DNA samples taken from the three tigers (to see whether they needed to bring in tigers from other parts of the country) have indicated that all three tigers are likely siblings, thereby drastically reducing their chances of becoming successful long-term breeding partners.
Free Range: The Trade in Tiger Parts -- It is a fact that most of the poaching in India is driven by demand from China, the world's biggest market for tiger body parts, due to the fact that the use of tiger bone is common in prescriptions of traditional Chinese medicines. At the time of writing there is a de jure (although not in practice) ban on the internal trade in tiger body parts in China (imposed in 1993), although in 2009 there has been a surge in Indian tiger deaths with at least 68 killings. India has approximately 1,300 wild tigers, while China has only a few. Consequently, and in contradiction to its legislated ban, China sanctions the establishment of controversial tiger farms to harvest and supply the parts. There are around 4,000 tigers in such farms that clearly encourage consumer demand of the parts, which then spills over into the wild tiger sanctuaries. Much of the parts are smuggled through Nepal and Myanmar, but a fair amount also find their way through India. China recently announced there's a strong possibility they'll lift the ban and strangely they feel that the farms are not much of a concern for conservation; this thinking could be catastrophic for the tigers. China, as India, is a member of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which has called for an end to the breeding of tigers for their parts. If such a ban is lifted it may be the beginning of the end of these tigers.
Not Just a Pretty Face: Fascinating Tiger Tidbits -- Unlike most cats, tigers have round pupils and are adept swimmers. Cubs are, however, born blind; it takes 1 to 2 weeks before they can see. When a tiger sticks its tongue out, curls its lips, and closes its eyes slightly (as if snarling), it's actually checking for scents in the air. This behavior is called the "Flehmen Response," wherein the tiger analyzes smells using sensory receptors in the roof of its mouth. Tigers are immensely powerful -- strong enough to kill and drag an animal heavier than itself -- and can eat over 30 kilograms (66 lb.) of meat in a single night. Females make better hunters, while the males are notoriously lazy -- even when it comes to sex. When a female is in heat and makes a mating call, the male will often hide until the female seeks him out and foists herself upon him. Much like the human fingerprint, every tiger's pug markings (footprints) are totally unique. By the time hunting was banned in the 1970s, only 2,000 tigers were left out of an estimated population of 50,000 in the 19th century. Today some 6,000 survive throughout the world, of which between 2,000 and 3,000 are found in India.