While African lions nap in the sun, undisturbed by safari vehicles packed with noisy tourists, Bengal tigers from India are more sensitive.
Always on the move, always looking for prey, across a territory that stretches between 17 and 20 square miles, finding one can feel like finding a moving needle in a jungle-sized haystack.
So unlike African safaris where the national parks are vast, Land Rovers speed by and gin and tonic flows like water, Indian safaris are exercises in restraint.
Widely regarded as the ultimate flare viewing destination, Ranthambore National Park is about one-tenth the size of Tanzania’s Serengeti and is subdivided into 10 zones. Park admission allows you to drive through one zone at a time, and zones are randomly assigned upon arrival. There are morning and afternoon intake periods, so you can manage two game drives per day.
Safari guides here drive a little slower, speak in lower tones, and stop more often to read the jungle signs. You quickly learn that the forest is not chaos, but a matrix of interconnected tracks. The way the wind is blowing affects how easily deer are alarmed. The abundance, or absence, of birdsong may indicate that a man-eater is lurking around the next corner. Paw prints in the dirt disappear in the wind.
For all those reasons, tiger safaris have the difficult reputation of not always delivering. Some make the long journey just to leave. After all, only between 3,726 and 5,578 tigers currently live in the wild worldwide, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Barely dozens live here.
But for the wildlife enthusiast, big cat aficionado, and history lover, there is no more rewarding or quintessential experience, and there has never been a better time to visit than now. According to a 2022 report, Ranthambore’s tiger population grew from 63 to 80 tigers in two years.
Better yet, earlier this year India debuted the first phase of its massive Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, a sprawling eight-lane to 12-lane monstrosity connecting the country’s two biggest cities. What was once a six-hour road trip from Delhi to Ranthambore can now be completed in just over three hours, meaning you can land at Delhi International Airport in the morning and travel to Ranthambore in time for an afternoon game drive.
After all, you will want to spend as much time as possible here.
Located in the state of Rajasthan, 350 kilometers southwest of Delhi and 200 kilometers southeast of Jaipur, Ranthambore is a place steeped in history and mystery. The ancient Aravalli Range runs through this region, and high up in those mountains stands the legendary Ranthambore Fort, a medieval fortress once considered the most impregnable fortress in the world.
Thus, the park is less of a desert and more of a graveyard, littered with ruins from the past and monuments of vanished empires. While looking for tigers, you are likely to pass under the fort’s imposing walls, or drive past an abandoned lakefront pleasure palace.
Driving up to the main entrance takes you through a succession of towering medieval gates overrun with banyan roots, the closest thing to “Tomb Raider” or “The Jungle Book.”
Just outside the park gates, you’ll find a multitude of accommodations ranging from backpacker hostels to Aman Resorts’ stylish Aman-i-Khás. But if you’re looking for authenticity, style, and the best guides in town, you’ll want to stay at Sher Bagh, Sujan’s luxury tented camp, an experience-based and curation-based hospitality company owned by businessman, polo player, and man of the world Jaisal Singh.
Singh’s parents, a pair of passionate conservationists, first came to this area in 1974 when there was little more than a small village and a few tigers in the forest beyond. The Singhs were among the first to film the Ranthambore tigers and lobbied the Indian government to make the area a national park.
Today, as a provider of numerous jobs for the local community, sponsor of schools, and operator of mobile health clinics to provide medical care, Suján is an invaluable part of the region’s human landscape.
It is also one of the most luxurious. Part of the Relais & Châteaux network, Sher Bagh features farm-to-table organic cuisine and elegant tented suites decorated in a 1920s-influenced “tent style.”
As night falls, guests linger at the bar and swap tiger stories while attendees adorn the camp with hundreds of twinkling lanterns, giving it an air of romance and adventure. Suites start around $720 in the low season.
While Sher Bagh is not short of amenities, it’s the guides that make all the difference here. They are some of the longest-serving and best-trained workers in the park today, and when it comes to preparing you for a successful tiger sighting, they understand the difference between shooting low and playing the long game.
My guide, Yusuf Ansari, was so familiar with the movements of a tigress that when a dozen other hunting vehicles congregated on one side of a lake for a chance to see her tail flicking through the reeds, he motioned for our driver to wait on the opposite side of the lake. He knew very well that she would eventually emerge with a complete superior view.
We waited for over an hour in the hot Rajasthani sun and then our tigress emerged from the bush, less than 20 feet away, with stripes more vivid than any photograph and eyes more piercing.
“After decades of seeing so many, it’s always special,” Ansari said, with an added caveat for those who are seduced. “But don’t forget, your feet hit with 600 pounds of pressure per square inch. Your heart ends where your appendix is, and not to mention the claws.