By Erin Waite, Senior Editorial Specialist, WWF-US
The air was dry and still, offering little respite against the sweltering summer heat. “Chalo, chalo,” our guide urged. “Let’s go!” I gripped my seat as our safari jeep jumped into action, racing and zigzagging across the dusty terrain. A moment before, we’d heard a sambar deer call out in the distance. Its warning bark, I’d learned, meant good news for us: A tiger was likely on the move.
We sped deeper into India’s Ranthambore National Park, passing beneath the ruins of 10th-century forts and massive banyan trees whose branches tangled together in cathedral-like archways. Soon, the dense forest gave way to scrubby grasslands and wide, rugged meadows flanked by rocky hillsides—arid, open habitat that makes this park one of the best places in the world to spot the iconic big cats.
But Ranthambore wasn’t always a sanctuary for tigers. Situated on a plateau along the foothills of the Aravali and Vindhya mountain ranges, the sprawling landscape was once a royal hunting ground for the Maharajas of Jaipur. During the 1800s and early 1900s, big game hunters embraced the tradition of shikar—large, organized shooting expeditions—while poaching, deforestation, and habitat loss decimated the park’s tiger population. By the late 1960s, its tigers had all but vanished.
Then, in 1973, the Indian government launched Project Tiger, an initiative aimed at saving the country’s remaining tigers from extinction. As part of that project, it established a series of nationally protected reserves, including Ranthambore, where tigers would be safeguarded against human encroachment and development. Today, the park is home to around 80 tigers—14 of which we were lucky enough to see during our visit.
On our first morning, we encountered a tiger family—a father and three cubs—snoozing on a patch of grass at the bottom of a steep ravine. We next came across a young male lounging next to a small watering hole, trying his best to keep cool in the record-breaking temperatures. Occasionally, he’d lift his head, his ears perked up like small satellite dishes tuned in to a monkey’s chatter or the cries of a nearby peacock.
Other tigers we glimpsed took refuge beneath ancient stone temples or relaxed by broad, shimmering lakes in the company of sunbathing crocodiles and snowy white egrets.
For me, each tiger sighting represented a symbol of hope, even defiance. Despite mounting threats, tiger numbers in India have continued to rise steadily in the last decade. That success, we saw firsthand, is thanks in no small part to local communities and conservationists—from eco-guides to safari drivers to national park staff—who have selflessly dedicated their lives to protecting these incredible creatures and their habitat.
Eventually, our jeep slowed on a wooded path by a stream and I began to scan the area for stripes or signs of movement. Suddenly, our guide gave an excited whisper: “There!” A lithe tigress called Noori was padding along the water’s edge, gracefully wending her way between the trees—the queen of her territory.
We observed her together in silent reverence. After a few minutes, she sauntered across the trail in front of our jeep, climbed up a boulder-studded incline, and paused within just feet of where we sat. Barely registering our presence, she nuzzled her face against a gnarled branch to mark her scent. Her eyes glowed amber as she blinked into the early morning light.
I held my breath, mesmerized at her beauty, and focused on absorbing every detail—her regal air, her sunlit fur, the way she flicked her tail. But I knew I’d remember this moment, and the intoxicating magic of witnessing India’s tigers in their natural habitat, for the rest of my life.