Ranthambore National Park
The nature guides were shocked when I told them that I will be going back to the Tiger Reserve for 46 times consecutively everyday for close to a month. They seldom encounter people going back into the Tiger Reserve for more than 6 times (Span of 3 days). Read on to find out more about my experience with photographing the incredible Bengal Tigers!
Feel free to click on each photo for a larger resolution.
Ranthambhore National Park, one of the most well known places in India to see the Royal Bengal Tigers in the wild. With 1334 km² of land t timesrea (That is bigger than the entire land area of Singapore) reserved for the tigers and 392 km² for visitors to explore around, it is a large area for the tigers and other wildlife to thrive. The entire visitor area is divided into 10 different zones, from appointed Zone 1 to Zone 10 written respectively at each trail entrance.
With an approximate 38 species of mammals, 315 species of birds, 14 species of reptiles and 402 species of plants, the forest holds a very rich biodiversity of wildlife. Mainly made up of tropical dry deciduous forest, the trees are spread wide apart in most areas. This entire area is estimated to have about 58 Royal Bengal Tigers currently. Population of the tigers is increasing slowly after years of effort by the local forest department to eradicate poaching.
Lets focus on what happens behind the scenes first. Wildlife Photographs will come later in my next blog post.
I made my solo trip down to India, Rajasthan, Sawai Madhopur, from the month of April to May for close to a month.
I went for the Safari rides continuously everyday to maximise my chances and luck of spotting the tigers, and of course to increase the chances of getting quality photographs. How do you get a good, fantastic photo of the tigers in an uncontrolled environment, whilst only being able to shoot from the seat of your jeep/truck? The main reason why I spent such a long time staying there, is to take quality photographs of the tigers. To get a casual snapshot of a tiger is easy, everyone can do that, even with a handphone nowadays. One can even go home with 1 lucky Safari Visit into the park with photos of the tiger. With fantastic photographs? I highly doubt so. The chances are very very minimal. You need to be at the right place at the right time. To take a very good photo of a wild subject in an environment totally uncontrolled, you need to have time. With time and effort spent, your luck increases. I concentrated on the tigers for my entire India trip as I believe that that quality beats quantity. There is no point going to many different places for different subjects as at the end of the day, a few good photographs beat a thousand bad photographs.
Why Am I wearing slippers? Of course that is a question! I wore my rubber boots(almost knee high) with cargo pants for the first Two Days of my Safari Trip. You have to remain in your vehicle at all times. Not even the nature guides are allowed to step foot in the forest for normal circumstances. It is illegal to do so. Everybody entering the reserve must adhere to this very strict rule. With that, I found it unnecessary to wear shoes for protection as I cant get down the vehicle at all times.
What have I gotten so far?
24 days of shooting, 47 Safari Trips, 265GB of media, 11,500 files of photos & videos, with 90% of it being photos.
From an honest point of view, I did have pretty good sightings of the Tigers for my duration of stay there. The seasonal sparse trees and hot weather (45 Degrees Celcius) made tiger sightings easier for me. Of course with close to a month of visiting the forest, I should have some sightings at least. In terms of photographs for myself, I have not gotten fantastic photographs from this trip, basically I have not stayed long enough to get quality photographs of the tigers.
Also, many other factors were against me when I had the opportunity to photograph the tigers. These factors would determine weather the photo goes into the trash, or not. As everything is uncontrolled, it was a challenge to try to photograph them as properly as possible. I would get into that later. I have seen photos of people posting tigers play fighting/ with a kill on the same day I was there. Just that I was not in the situated same zone, I missed many photo opportunities. As mentioned previously, I need to be in the right place at the right time. To me, a fantastic photograph means an award winning photograph, a photo that WOWs people, or something close to it.
A typical day here goes like this. A total of 2 safaris in a day. 1 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon.
The morning safari starts from 630am -930am. The afternoon safari starts from 3.30pm -6.30pm.
530am: A wake up call by Patrick, the manager of Tiger Den Hotel, would come knocking on my door every morning without fail. They have to make sure that we guest are prepared and ready to be picked up by the Safari vehicle. There are only 2 types of vehicles allowed in the park, other than the few emergency/forest department vehicles which only the officials use.
Either the 20 seater open air Canter – Truck or the 6 seater open air Jeep (Suzuki 1.3 liters Maruti Gypsy) comes and fetch you from your hotel. Each vehicle is compulsory to have a Nature Guide and driver from the Forest Department. Usually solo wildlife photographers/ pro filmmakers/ pro wildlife photographers or a small family on a holiday will rent the entire jeep for themselves. That of course comes a hefty price of INR 8500. It might be slightly cheaper for locals. For me on a budget, I share the Jeep with random people. Most of the time being couples/families on tour, sometimes photographers, sometimes retirees. The Pros: I get to meet many different people from around the world and from all walks of life, and I get contacts.
The cons: Squeezy with the equipments I have, unable to go to spots where you intend to camp/wait. But that is Ok, as the driver also try to go to the best position he can go to for the visitors to have better angles. For more than 4 times cheaper the price of renting the entire vehicle to yourself and on a budget, I wouldnt mind going with 6 people instead.
At times when I am lucky, the jeep only has 4 visitors including me (excluding compulsory nature guide and driver). With just 4 visitors occupying the 3 by 3 seats, I have much more space to put my equipments down. Each vehicle is situated to go different zones of the park to avoid congestion in the forest. Inevitably, when a tiger is spotted, congestion and noise pollution occurs. The noise usually comes from the fully filled 20 seater canters and even the locals in the jeeps cannot tolerate the local overly excited crowd. There should be stricter crowd control for the canters. Most of the rides come back with 0 Tiger sightings, as tigers are well camouflaged when they are not moving, I would not be surprised I passed a couple of tigers and I had no clue of it. They are that well camouflaged.
7.30am – 9:00am: Halfway through the mornings, the vehicle would have reached the end of the situated zone they are in (If there are no tigers encounter before that), most would actually stop there and listen for calls. What kind of calls? No, not mobile phone calls, but calls of the wild. Alarm calls, or warning calls , that is. What animal makes the alarm calls? They are usually the herbivores, the preys of the tiger. The Indian Languars, Sambar Deers, Chitals (as known as Spotted Deers), indian peacocks are usually the ones giving out the alarm calls, when a predator is in vicinity. It has proven useful.
Picture above was photographed while waiting for the stars to appear. Strangely, most of the nature guides do not have a binoculars with them and they use their naked eyes and sensitive ears to try to spot one. Of course their range to spot the well camouflaged predators are enhanced tremendously with the Minox binoculars. When I loaned them the Minox Waterproof BL HD 10 x 52 Binoculars, they were more than happy to accept it.
My guide was as enthusiastic as me in trying to find the Royal Bengal Tigers, even though they have worked here for 10years or more. We were in Zone 3, the current hottest zone to locate the family of 4 tigers, sometimes 5. A mother nicknamed T19 Krishna, Father nickednamed T28 Starmale and their 3 cubs rule this teritory. No other tigers are currently in this zone with such a large male in this territory.
We almost lost hopes in finding one. Just as we were about to leave the area after more than an hour, one tiger came out of the vegetation, followed slowly by another, and the third one came tailing behind! It was such an incredible sight to see a tiger walking right towards you. Of course words cannot justify the rather intriguing feeling of seeing tigers in the wild. It seemed so unreal.
At times, without the alarm calls, we would have driven off and missed the tiger. After waiting for the alarm calls, it comes with luck if the predator wishes to show itself to us. Most of the time, I am not so lucky.
At times, I am lucky and the tiger would just walk out of it’s hiding spot into our manageable angle of view. Sometimes this happens, the legal time limit to be in the safari has almost reach it’s end time and the vehicle have to leave the park be it whatever circumstances, for the driver & nature guide might risk getting into unnecessary trouble with the forest department. No exception for Pro filmmakers/ Pro photographers/ Pros with pass to all zones. I wished noise control was as strict as this and I hope something would be done about it for the welfare of the animals.
The vehicle would usually leave the park around 9:15am. The lesser the people in the vehicle, the later it would leave the park.
9:45am: I have safely reached back the hotel. The vehicle sends everyone back to their respective hotels from the nearest to the furthest distance from the park.
10:00am – 3:00pm: Free & Easy. Do what you like. People have breakfast and lunch catered by Tiger Den Hotel in between this time. I save cost by removing lunch cost after the first few days as I realise I am not hungry at all during lunch time, as I have a heavy breakfast usually after the morning safari. Of course that is not recommended. It depends on individual.
Breakfast is standardised ‘western’ Buffet meal of Omelettes and toast with strawberry jam and butter, and a change of fruits everyday. On special days, especially with many guests, french fries is on the menu. Breakfast is monotonous but with different fruits everyday. That is Ok with me. No complains. Not a fussy eater.
3:00pm: Ready at the porch and waiting for the Safari vehicle to pick me up. On some days I would join in the 20 Seater Canter truck because if I would go up onto the 6 seater jeep, I would not go into the zone which I intended to. Initially, I thought it was really going to be bad idea. But it was not that bad after all. Somehow with lots of equipment, the friendly people be it foreigners or locals would give way to you naturally. I had the whole front seat to myself with another seat to put my equipments, cushioned by the soft seat!
Mind you, the bumps in the forest are crazy. Be it in a jeep or a canter, the bumps are crazy. Just how bad are they? I do get bruises on my legs now and then because my equipments end up hitting me hard whilst I was protecting them against the bumps. Still, the equipments receive a pretty bad punishment from the bumps and natural elements. Some parts of my equipment, like my DSLR body, has got permanent scratches. Pure Magnesium Alloy material can be seen at some spots. Gold wordings on my lenses have also been rubbed off on some parts. Dust is one of the natural enemies my equipments faced. The fine dust from the trails will settle on you whenever the vehicle moves, especially when there is a vehicle in front of you. All these still happen despite myself trying to minimise damage to my equipment. From this trip, I was able to see and feel the difference between a Pro Body DSLR build and an entry level DSLR body. Little or minimal dust was inside my Nikon D7100 and D7200’s pentaprism and mirror. On the entry level Nikon D3200, the mirror was pretty cluttered with dust. Even so, with the hotel’s cloth covering all 3 of the equipments equally when on the move. Of course, if nothing is done, it would have gotten to a worse condition.
4:15pm – 6:00pm: By now, most of the vehicles would have reached the end of the zone, or waiting at the hot spot of the tigers (If no tiger have been spotted before that), if a tiger is spotted, a large number of vehicles would actually be going after the tigers. Good thing is that the tigers are pretty used to the vehicles. At times I observed that it was spooked by the loud screeching sounds of the vehicles braking when going downhill. Vehicles would usually follow the tiger/s till it went beyond the trails or the Safari time is up. On the way out of the park, if something catches the attention of the visitors and nature guides, they would usually stop for a brief few minutes, in hopes of trying to see the animal. That would usually cause a vehicle congestion especially if it happened along the main road to the first 5 zones. The vehicle would usually leave the park at around 6:15pm.
6:45pm: I am safely back in my hotel. Free and Easy. I would take a shower, wash my clothes, and transfer all photos out of the cameras to be put into my computer. I sort the folders out by Days and Camera, after which, I immediately back up a 2nd copy to an external harddisk. When I am done, I make sure I always have a Full Back-Up copy with me wherever I go. I make sure I split the data up in 2 separate places. In this case, I bring my harddisk with me to dinner at the food hall/canteen. Another exact copy(Laptop) is in another place practically, which is left in the room. Call me paranoid, but mishaps have happened to me before to my precious photographs, and not backed up. 1 occasion being my harddisk with 1 month of work not backed up at all in a separate place/online storage got crushed by a car. Painful lesson learnt. Another occasion being an external hard disk drive crashed without warning with no backup back in 2008-2009. A few years of work, all gone. Things like burglary might happen too in the room when you are not there. It is deemed safe in that area but I never know. Better to be safe than sorry. My good friend, Joseph Koh, was in a Ranthambhore Hotel few years back (He could not recall the name of the hotel), he went for dinner too, along with his photographic equipments. Thank God he did that, even though the hotel staffs said it was a safe place. When he went back into the room after dinner, he saw dusty footprints from the toilet window, down to the toilet bowl (Candle was dropped to the ground,luckily not lit), all the way to the room. Well it was his effort that prevented any mishap from happening. Of course, he changed hotel immediately after that.
Back from dinner, I go through my photos for the day quickly, formatted my memory cards, and prepare myself for a long day ahead.
Mammals I saw in the park (Brief, not in order):
Royal Bengal Tigers
Caracals (Very very rare and very lucky to have a glimpse of it running swiftly across across the trial)
Chitals aka Spotted Deers
Nilgai/ Blue Bull Antelopes
Chinkaras/ Indian Gazelles
Sloth Bears (Rare and very very Lucky to see twice in unexpected zones)
Reptiles I saw (Brief, not in order):
Rattle Snake (someone’s phone)
Python (Devouring a Chital,someone’s phone)
Birds I saw and heard (Brief, not in order):
Asian paradise Flycatchers/Pale morphs
Indian Tree Pies
Storks – Painted Storks, Wooly Necked Storks, Open Billed Storks,
Vulture – Indian Vulture, *** Vulture
Coppersmith Barbets (heard, not seen)
Ibis, black headed
Kingfishers – Pied Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, White Throated/breasted Kingfisher, Stork Billed Kingfisher (Heard)
Crested serpent eagle
Oriental Honey Buzzard
Black Capped Night Heron
Owls – Indian Scops owl, Collared Scops Owl, Brown Fish Owl, Spotted Owlet
Woodpecker – Flameback
Red Wattled Lapwing
Parakeets – Rose Ring, Alexander
Green Bee Eater
Oriental Darter/ Locals call it the Snake Bird
and many more birds to list!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Write Up!
Have a Good Day ahead!