Bengal tiger in Ranthambore National Park - © Aditya Singh/ThinkstockIndia has 48 tiger reserves, and current estimates suggest that they are now home to between 1,700 and 2,200 tigers. Although this may seem a pitifully small number, the current trend is somewhat encouraging. Faced with the impending extinction of the iconic predator — chiefly because of poachers intent on supplying the lucrative Chinese traditional medicine trade — Indian authorities recently discovered resources and resolution. According to some optimistic accounts, tiger numbers have increased by 30 percent in the past five years as a result of more determined enforcement.
India’s most famous tiger reserve is Ranthambore National Park — in part because of its location, just three hours’ drive from Jaipur. Today, there are believed to be around 62 tigers in the park’s 151 square miles. This is roughly the area’s carrying capacity — male tigers require large territories — and translocation of tigers is now actively being considered. Aside from Ranthambore, the best-known tiger reserves are Kanha and Bandhavgarh in the central state of Madhya Pradesh (in both of which I recommend luxury camps), and Jim Corbett in northern India, the nation’s oldest. Founded in 1936, Corbett is named for the conservationist and author whose book “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” — written in spare, almost Hemingway-esque, prose — remains a wildlife classic. The rapid growth of India’s middle class, some of the members of which are taking an increased interest in their country’s natural heritage, means that new names will soon become familiar. For example, Pench, Panna and Tadoba national parks are all attracting more visitors, and the first two already have excellent lodges — Baghvan and Pashan Garh — run by Taj Hotels.
As a result of increased domestic tourism, it is important to avoid the well-known reserves during Indian public holidays and, if possible, on weekends. On my recent visit to Rajasthan, I paid a return visit to Ranthambore, neglecting to notice that the day of my arrival coincided with the end of Holi, the spring festival of colors. In consequence, the park was overrun with noisy trippers whose principal interest seemed to be taking selfies rather than watching the wildlife. In addition to six-seater Jeeps, Ranthambore has numerous “canters” that hold up to 20 people, and it was not unusual to see 15 or more of these vehicles, containing upward of 250 people, congregated at the principal viewpoints. The local safari drivers are supposed to stay within allocated zones, which they conspicuously fail to do, and they also have an unpleasant habit of driving at breakneck speed along the narrow dirt roads to get a jump on their rivals. (It is extremely important to engage the services of a driver and guide attached to one of the upscale lodges, not the freelance employees of a travel agency.) Nonetheless, Ranthambore remains a park of extraordinary beauty, with lakes, forests, meadows and the romantic ruins of a 10th-century fort surrounded by ridges of hazy hills.