Tiger Safari: Wildlife Photography in Ranthambhore National Park

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.

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A lovely tiger family portrait that was shot in Bandhavgarh National Park in 2015.

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.

Introduction

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.

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The beautiful landscapes of Ranthambhore National Park. (best viewed from PC)

 

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.

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The tigers here are not affected by the presence of the vehicles in the park as they see it being part of the environment.

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.

Getting there

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.

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(Gallery best viewed from PC)

 

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.

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Tripods are useless when it comes to shooting from a vehicle. A bean bag is the best option. It is steady, and you can move in fast to get your shots without the hassle of the tripod.

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.

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It is unwise to change your lens during the safari drive as it would attract plenty of dust into the camera interior. I brought 2 bodies to get the wide and telephoto shots.

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.

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Hansraj and me. We formed a really great team! Every photographer coming to Ranthambhore should get hold of him, he delivers the best photo opportunity!

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.

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A fresh tiger footprint, seen by the sharp edges indicating that a tiger had just walked past not too long before us.

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.

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Tigers are often found nearby or in the water.
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Spotted Deer drinking from the waterhole.
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Sambar Deer crossing a lake. 
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Mugger Crocodiles are commonly seen basking around the water edges. 
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Waterholes attract plenty of bird species to drink and bath. A good time to photograph the different bird species.
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Pied Kingfisher
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Oriental Darter carrying its fish to the small rock to consume it. 

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.

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We spotted T57 resting one evening in zone 2 and even though the tiger was used to the vehicle’s presence, it was still a heart pounding moment when our jeep tried to get close because it was so huge.
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 T34 Kumbha is a handsome looking male tiger which spots a bright orange coat which I encountered at zone 6.

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.

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Spotted Deer
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Sambar Deer
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Hanuman Langur

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.

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After 3 game drives without a tiger sighting, I was beginning to feel anxious. But luckily that afternoon, the 2 young adult male tigers cancelled my drought.
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The other brother appeared after we spotted the first tiger.
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 It was lovely to see the 2 brothers relaxing among the beautiful backdrop of green, red and brown.
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After a game drive with no tiger sightings, we exited the zone only to turn back after a villager notified that the tiger T84 Arrowhead, was spotted walking towards the direction we had left.
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Ranthambhore is full of ancient ruins which had formed part of the tiger landscape.

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.

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A tiger enjoying cooling off in the waterhole on a hot afternoon.

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.

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The tiger got up from its afternoon rest and sat in front of the ‘arch’ before making her way.
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A tiger prowling through the forest
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A tiger checking her surroundings. 

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.

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T41 Laila giving a big yawn, showing off her impressive canines.
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T41 Laila taking a stroll through the Bakola region, where green patches of riverine forest can be found.
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My exclusive time spent with tigress T41 Laila, before the other vehicles start rushing in and compete for the good spots.
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By predicting the tiger’s movement and constantly trying to get ahead of the rest and find a good spot in advance, I was able to get many shots of the tiger facing my direction.

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.

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A tiger stalks her prey, with heads lowered, eyes focused and a stealthy approach. 
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The tiger leaps in closer to get into a better position for ambush. Although deadly hunters, a tiger’s hunting success rate is only about 1 in 20 attempts. 
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T57 feasting on a Sambar. Tigers often drag their prey into thick vegetation before consuming its prey.

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.

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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.

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Although its population in Ranthambhore might be higher than the tiger, the Indian Leopard is rarely sighted here due to the high density of tigers. I was lucky to encounter the elusive big cat twice during the trip. The leopards tend to stay at the hilly areas of the park to avoid competition from the tiger.
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A rare sighting of the Bengal Fox at the outskirts of Ranthambhore National Park.
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Painted Sangrouse are not commonly sighted in Ranthambhore. I was lucky to encounter them on the outskirts of the park.
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We got a rare sighting of the Jungle Cat during our last game drive, putting an icing on the cake for all the rare sights I encountered during our trip.

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.

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The wonderful bird life of Ranthambhore National Park.

 

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We were resting nearby a small waterhole when a Brown Fish Owl suddenly swooped down and caught a snake before flying into the cliffs to consume it.

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.

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T34 Kumbha having his morning stroll.
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One of T39 Noor’s daughter, walking out from the shadow and into the warm evening light.

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.

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An artist painting a portrait of a tiger at the safari resort, a good example of how the tiger could generate income to the economy of Sawai Madhopur. I was so impressed by the details of their artwork that I purchased one of their paintings.

Closing Note

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.

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Evening light in Ranthambhore National Park.

Wildlife sightings checklist

Mammals

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

Birds:

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

18.Rock Pigeon

19.Red-collared Dove

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

35. Shikra

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

Reptiles:

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.

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