My first tiger safari happened 3 years ago when I embarked on a 6D5N trip to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. It was a wonderful trip where the highlight was photographing a mother tiger and her cubs relaxing in the water. Although a great trip, it wasn’t enough and I yearned for more shots of my favorite animal.
Fast forward to 2018, I returned to India on the 22 March to 1 April, this time to the famous Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, for a 11D10N stay in hope of maximizing my chances of getting great shots of the tiger. Many people whom I spoke to was stunned when I told them of the duration I was staying. “10 days?!” was the standard reply I get as most people only stayed for 3 days maximum.
Ranthambhore National Park is located in the district of Sawai Madhopur, the state of Rajasthan, India. With an area of 392 sqaure kilometers, it consist of the core area of the larger Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve which spans across 1334 square kilometers(1.85x bigger than Singapore). It is home to about 60 Bengal Tigers at the moment. The landscape consist of subtropical dry deciduous forest to open grassy meadows, which includes 539 species of flowering plants. The park is open from October to June and is closed from July to September due to the monsoon season. The park also consist of the Ranthambhore Fort, a ancient fort that was built in the mid 10th century.
The tiger is an endangered species with less than 4000 individuals left in the wild, a result of the relentless poaching and habitat loss caused by humans. Seeing a wild tiger in other parts of the world is considered a very rare sight, but due to the habitat and high density of tigers, Ranthambhore is one of the best places in the world to see a wild tiger, where they can be seen walking in broad daylight and are used to the presence of vehicles, often walking right up to it.
The national park consist 10 zones, where I was booked for zones 1-6, which are the more popular zones. I had seen tigers in all zones, with zone 2 the best of them all during my trip and also the zone which I visited the most. During my 9 days of safari, I had seen tigers every day except one.
It took me about 12 hours to travel from Singapore to the safari resort, transferring via a domestic flight from Delhi to Jaipur, followed by a 3.5 hours drive. The resort, Jungle Vilas, is located about 5mins drive from the entrance of the national park. I’d like to take the time to mention how lovely my stay at the resort is, with great hospitality from all staff, great food and a very pleasant environment to live in.
Preparing for the safari
With the experience of the previous safari in hand, I am better prepared this time to expect what was coming. I liaise with a local Indian professional photography company called Toehold, to help arrange the logistics, such as booking the safari, resort, and guide etc.
I packed light knowing that the weight limit for domestic flight was only 15kg. I ditched my tripod as it is useless for a safari in a jeep. I got myself a bean bag and fill it up with rice with the help of the resort. The bean bag is an essential item during the safari to support my lenses and reduce camera shake.
I brought a few cloths to cover my cameras as the environment in the park can be very dusty, especially when there is a tiger sighting and many vehicles scramble to get into the best position. It is essential to have your camera cleaning kit to blow the dust off and wipe the lenses after every game drive.
There is no need to wear hiking shoes or boots as you will be confined in the vehicle throughout the game drive except for designated rest areas. Throughout the safari, I wore only sandals for convenience as there were times when I had to stand on the seats to get my shot.
The gears that I brought for the trip were my Nikon D7200 + Nikon 200-500mm f5.6, Nikon D7100 + Sigma 17-70mm f2.8-4, and a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 which I did not use at all. With the combination of the 200-500mm and 17-70mm, I get a good range of focal length from telephoto to wide angle, as quite often, the tiger would walk right up to my vehicle. My camera was set to manual mode with auto ISO, because it would be too much of a hassle to change the ISO due to the constant changes in lighting condition of the forest. My metering was set to matrix and I would use the EV to control my exposure if necessary.
The Safari Drive
The safari in the month of March starts at 630am to around 930-10am in the morning, and then 230pm to around 530-6pm in the afternoon. There are also options to do the half or full day but it is more expensive, hence I opted for the normal safari.
The morning drives during the end of March was a chilly 21 degrees Celsius and gets really hot in the afternoon with temperatures rising to as high as 39 degrees Celsius. I brought along a jacket for the morning drive but the moving vehicle made it felt like its 10 degrees Celsius colder.
My super guide Hansraj (I called him a super guide because he was the reason I got so many great shots from the safari) would pick me at the resort before each drive, I hired him as my fixed guide throughout the trip.
I would highly recommend to opt for a fixed guide and exclusive jeep throughout the safari for the best opportunity to get the desired shots. Although this comes with additional cost, it is worth the price for the photo opportunities you get. A fixed guide ensures that he understands your needs as a photographer and gets you into good positions, while an exclusive jeep ensures that it focus on the subject of photography rather than just a casual safari viewing.
One jeep or Gypsy as they call it can sit up to 6 people. In a normal jeep, you would have to squeeze with others who may just be casual tourist and they might not want to stay in a single spot for long for that photo opportunity. The maximum people I would recommend per exclusive jeep is 4, but ideally I would prefer 2 people per jeep so each can have a row to themselves and able to move left and right. If you have plenty of money to spare, travelling alone in an exclusive jeep is a wonderful experience as well as you have the whole jeep to move around to get your shots.
Once entering the park, we would stop by the checkpoint at Singh Dwar where we would split into the different zones. Once inside, everybody is of equal status, regardless whether how rich you are, or how big your lenses is. But by having an very good fixed guide, it makes the difference between a good photo opportunity and a bad one.
Throughout the whole safari, I was the only Asian coming from a country east of India, except for an Asian lady who was married to a Caucasian. The rest of the visitors were either Indian nationals or Caucasians. One purpose of this write up is to create more awareness to the people from countries from the east on the beauty of the tigers and the environment they live in. Relentless poaching for tiger and habitat loss has brought the tiger ever closer to extinction, due to the demand of tiger parts from the countries in East Asia. Only through awareness we would come to appreciate and love what we see, and thus protect what we love.
The dirt road during the game drives were very bumpy, so do not expect it to be a leisure safari like those you experience in the zoo or wildlife park. It is also pretty dusty when there are many vehicles around especially when a tiger is sighted.
Once entering the zone that I was allocated to, we moved in to search for the tiger. My philosophy for the trip was tigers first, others can wait, unless it was a great photo opportunity that its hard not to miss. As always, we looked for fresh footprint made by the tigers walking on the road. Tigers like walking along the road as it is more comfortable for them and they love the soft sandy feeling of the road.
Waterholes, rivers and lakes are the best places to photograph wildlife. Tigers are often found nearby or in the water. It also attracts an array of wildlife and are great for photo opportunities.
Tigers are territorial animals. With the help of Hansraj, we were able to identify which tiger it was depending on the zones we entered and also by looking at its stripe pattern. Tiger stripes are like human fingerprints, no 2 tigers have the same stripe pattern.
Once fresh footprints were found, Hansraj would say “sir hold tight please”, as we sped up hoping to catch up with the tiger. We kept a lookout for alarm calls from the deer or langur as that would indicate that a predator is nearby.
There is no prediction or guarantee on when or where the tiger would be sighted. Sometimes we saw the tiger shortly after entering the park while other times it took us longer to encounter one. Sometimes we did not see the tiger at all throughout a single game drive. There was one occasion when there there was not a single tiger sighting the whole morning and we had already exited the zone, only to turn back in time to catch it when one villager exclaimed that the tiger was walking towards the place we had just been.
Tigers are crepuscular creatures, being most active at the twilight hours, hence the best time to catch them active is in the early morning just when we enter the park, or late afternoon when its close to sunset. The typical tiger habits in the morning would be to have a stroll after their night out, before finding a spot to rest for the day. In the hot afternoon, the tiger would be resting either in the water or under a shade and we would wait for them to get up for their evening walk.
Sometimes, the tiger would only appear in short glimpse of orange and then disappeared into the forest, other times we would get to see the tiger throughout the whole game drive. providing many great photo opportunities with the tiger.
Occasionally, I was lucky enough to be the first and only jeep to encounter the tiger and got to enjoy the exclusive time with them before other vehicles started coming in and compete for the good spots. When it gets really crowded, we would try to drive ahead of the rest, find a good opening and wait for the tiger to walk by.
2 rare moments during the trip was when I got to witness a tiger attempting to hunt and a tiger feasting on its kill. It was so self absorbing to see how the tiger, with her eyes focused, slowly inch closer to her prey, although the stalk was unsuccessful as the deer spotted her and ran away before she could get close enough to chase. Another day, we got to see a tiger feasting on a Sambar deer. Although we did not witness the actual hunt, it was still awesome to see a tiger eating in front of us, with the foul smell of rotting flesh filling the air.
When no tigers were sighted during the game drive, I would turn my attention to the other wildlife. It is also important not to forget the other wildlife residing in the park as well. Animals such as Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer, Indian Peafowl and Hanuman Langur are the most commonly seen animals in the park, followed by the Blue Bull, the largest antelope in India, and the occasion sighting of smaller animals like the mongooses and macaques.
The wonderful animals that live alongside the tiger. (best viewed from PC)
There were also encounters of animals the were rarely sighted in Ranthambhore, such as the Indian Leopard which I encountered twice, a Bengal Fox at the outskirts of the national park, and a Jungle Cat. Due to the high density of tigers here, smaller predators are more elusive as they seek to avoid competition from the tigers.
There were plenty of bird species to photograph as well. It was fun photographing and trying to identify which species of birds they were. Some rare or uncommon sightings of birds include the Painted Sandgrouse and Asian King Vulture, which is critically endangered.
Throughout my trip, I was really lucky to have many great tiger sightings. In the 18 safari game drives I had, only 6 turned out with zero tiger sightings. I managed to see 12 different tigers and managed to photograph 11 of them, which was quite a feat according to the owner of the safari resort. On average, my sightings per day is 4 tigers. But there was once where I saw 7 tigers in a day.
How protecting the tiger makes the difference for a city’s economy
Sawai Madhopur, also known as tiger city is the district where Ranthambhore National Park is located. The park is the main source of business in the district, believed to have contributed about SGD70 million through its tourism industry annually.
Most tiger poachers were locals hired by syndicates to hunt the tiger where they would be promised good monetary returns. Motivated by money, the locals took on the job of killing the tiger.
Eco-tourism thus plays an important role in the conservation of tigers, where the presence of tigers generate income and create jobs for the locals from tourist who pay to come and see the majestic beast. These locals would know that protecting the tiger would also mean protecting their livelihood, and thus would not resort to poaching for money, saving the tiger as a result.
This trip had exceeded my expectations by a huge margin and I could not ask for a better tiger safari than this. My only regrets was not to get a picturesque photo of the tiger at zone 3, the most beautiful and iconic part of the national park. This would all the more make a good reason to come back again in the future.
Wildlife sightings checklist
1. Bengal Tiger (Endangered)
2. Indian Leopard (Vulnerable)
3. Jungle Cat
4. Golden Jackal
5. Bengal Fox
6. Indian Flying Fox
7. Blue Bull
8. Spotted Deer
9. Sambar Deer
10. Indian Gazelle
11. Indian Wild Boar
12. Common Mongoose
13. Ruddy Mongoose
14. Hanuman Langur
15. Rhesus Macaque
16. Five-striped Palm Squirrel
1. Grey Francolin
2. Jungle Bush Quail
3. Painted Spursfowl
4. Indian Peafowl
5. Bar-headed Goose
6. Ruddy Shelduck
7. Common Teal
8. Black-rumped Flameback
9. White-throated Kingfisher
10. Pied Kingfisher
11. Green Bee Eater
12. Greater Coucal
13. Alexandrine Parakeet (Neat-threatened)
14. Rose-ringed Parakeet
15. Indian Scops Owl
16. Brown Fish Owl
17. Spotted Owlet
20. Brown Crake
21. White-breasted Waterhen
22. Common Moorhen
23. Common Coot
24. Painted Sandgrouse
25. Black-tailed Gotwit (Near-threatened)
26. Green Sandpiper
27. Wood Sandpiper
28. Great Thick Knee
29. Black-winged Stilt
30. Red-wattled Lapwing
31. Black-winged Kite
32. Indian Vulture (Critically endangered)
33. Red-headed Vulture (Critically endangered)
34. Crested Serpent Eagle
36. Oriental Honey Buzzard
37. Oriental Darter
38. Little Cormorant
39. Intermediate Egret
40. Grey Heron
41. Black-crowned Night Heron
42. Black-headed Ibis (Near-threatened)
43. Eurasian Spoonbill
44. Painted Stork
45. Asian Openbill
46. Woolly-necked Stork (Vulnerable)
47. Rufous Treepie
48. Crow sp.
49. White-browed Fantail
50. Black drongo
51. Oriental Magpie Robin
52. Indian Robin
53. Braminy Starling
54. Asian Pied Starling
55. Common Myna
56. Red-vented Bulbul
57. Jungle Babbler
58. Indian Silverbill
59. Crested Bunting
60. Indian Pond Heron
61. Little Egret
1. Mugger Crocodile (Vulnerable)
2. Indian Desert Monitor
3. Turtle sp. unable to ID
4. Snake sp. unable to ID
About the author
Dennis’ love for animals inspired him to pick up wildlife photography since the age of 15 in 2001, honing his skills at the local zoo for 9 years before deciding to head out into the wild to photograph animals in their natural environment.
His passion and understanding in both animals and photography had brought him some humble achievements, notably achieving merit winner in the Singapore Young Photographer Award 2012, and finishing 5th in the year long Singapore Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017, and winning a few smaller photography competitions.
Besides wildlife photography, Dennis also loves photographing travel and landscapes and also freelancing as a wedding photographer.