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Delhi - Listen for the call of peacocks - langur monkeys too. That was the advice I was given as we set off in rosy morning light to look for tigers in Rajasthan's Ranthambore Park.
Passing under the great aerial roots of a banyan tree I started to hear strident cries. They grew louder as we rounded a corner of the track - and then we ground to a halt. A tiger cub the size of a cocker spaniel was ambling along the rough road ahead of us. It stopped in its tracks, looked at our 4x4 with insouciance and vanished into the bush.
A quartet of worried peacocks emerged, scurrying past in unlikely disarray, coronet topknots bobbing crazily. Moments later a big tiger stood before us. It was so close I could hear it breathing. I hadn't appreciated what an adrenalin rush you get from proximity to a beast of such power and self-conscious majesty. This was the mother, and now and then she called out softly to her young in the undergrowth, revealing very large, very long canines as she did so. She was evidently unfazed by our vehicle - it was neither meal nor menace.
Less than a month earlier, I would not have been able to see, or indeed hear, any of this - no tigers, no mad-dash peacocks, no langur cries. For Ranthambore, like the other 40 tiger reserves in India, had been firmly closed. And tiger tourism had been banned.
That was by edict of the supreme court of India, which in July announced measures to close tiger reserves to tourists. The move was sparked by a petition filed last year by environmental campaigner Ajay Dubey. In it he maintained that tourism was traumatising tigers and damaging conservation efforts.
The Supreme Court put the matter to the forestry ministry which controls India's parks. For months there was no response, so the court issued what has effectively been a wake-up call to India's conservation authorities. The ban was imposed during the annual closure of the parks but it remained in place after they should have reopened in the autumn.
This was radical: it is impossible to quantify how many tens of thousands of livelihoods are dependent on tiger-related tourism, from hotel staff to guides, drivers, farmers, craftspeople, shopkeepers and a great band of associated traders. Debate grew heated over whether tourism really does hinder the protection of one of the world's most endangered species. After intense lobbying on the part of the tourist industry and many conservationists, the embargo was lifted in the middle of October and the parks reopened under a fresh set of guidelines.
At Ranthambore, I was told that each state government is responsible for the day-to-day running of its wildlife parks. However, as an overall ruling within the 17 “tiger states” (from Assam to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala), “Critical Tiger Habitats” have been newly defined and tourists are allowed into just 20 percent of each of those areas. The state governments have been given six months to draw up their new regulations for entry into the parks, narrowly defining everything from timings to registration of visitors and vehicles. The rulings will be ratified in April 2013.
And reactions at Ranthambore? Painful though it all has been, in many respects the ban and its repercussions have been good news for India's tigers, I was told. “It has forced the authorities to take a good look at what they're actually doing about conservation, which they haven't monitored well for years,” one of the guides remarked. The most up-to-date official estimate of tiger numbers is from 2010; across the country it was just 1,706. “Over recent years official conservation of the big cat has been stymied by the apathy of politicians and quite probably by the connivance of some forestry workers with poachers,” he added.
Meantime, it is widely acknowledged that those working in tourism - guides, drivers and others - have had a valuable role in monitoring and policing tiger movements and potential threats.
I toured Ranthambore several times with Yusuf Ansari, author, conservationist, wildlife campaigner, former politician and host at Sher Bagh, the beautifully devised tented camp just outside the park, where I was staying. Prolonged conversation wasn't possible as we swayed around the jungle tracks in an open-sided 4x4, so after our first game drive (no tiger sighting then, but plenty of deer, antelope, crocodiles and eagles in evidence) we retreated to the hotel and talked in its leafy gardens beside the dramatically sited infinity pool.
“The tiger is at the top of an ecosystem,” he said. “If it survives then the rest of the ecosystem does too. If it doesn't, then deer and antelope will freely nibble down the grasslands and the entire area degrades. So saving the tiger isn't just about the survival of one species.” The biggest threat to the tiger, he added, is loss of habitat - through farming, industry, bad management. Poaching is next on the list of enormous problems for the big cat.
At Ranthambore, they'd had an appalling year in 2004 when 20 tigers were lost to poachers. At the same time, Sariska, Rajasthan's other tiger park, lost 24. That was its entire population of the big cat. Ranthambore has since recovered well: there are at least 56 tigers (not including this year's cubs) in the greater area. Meanwhile, five of its tigers have been relocated to Sariska. Two more young tigresses (evidently with a taste for upmarket facilities for they periodically visit the gardens of Sher Bagh and the adjacent luxury resort Aman-i-Khas) are due to be transported there soon.
And tourism? Of course, visitors in volume make a big impact on the environment, and that has the knock-on effect of damaging the chances of the tiger surviving: therefore, Yusuf said, careful tourist management is vital. Yet the range of landscapes in India's parks is so varied, he added, that very different measures are needed in each reserve - one solution certainly doesn't fit all. At Ranthambore, there are nine tourist zones, to each of which eight vehicles are admitted twice a day. (Big fines are imposed if they stray from the agreed area.) The key factor under review at the moment, he explained, is the maximum carrying capacity of each vehicle - how many people do you allow to view an animal at the same time?
It was on our third game drive that Yusuf tracked our tiger family. We watched the tigress by ourselves for a while. Radios are no longer allowed in vehicles entering in the park. This is mainly in order to stop poachers intercepting information as to tiger movements, but also to avoid sudden dashes of tourist traffic as they congregate around one animal. Nevertheless, other guides had also tracked our tigress. As their tourist groups arrived we left the scene. It would give the animal more space, said Yusuf, and besides with all the other vehicles congregating there we'd have the rest of the zone to ourselves.
We spent the next hour or so exploring a spectacular landscape dotted with spotted deer. Iridescent kingfishers splashed into the rivers. Bright white herons stalked the shallows. Langurs gazed at us from the branches of peepal trees.
Our route out of the park led us back through the area where we'd seen the tigers. And there, we joined seven other vehicles from which more than 40 people were peering at the tigress, now lying in the middle of the track apparently impervious to all the attention. She moved in her own good time, unblocking our 4x4 and several others only shortly before the visiting session ended and the park gates closed.
Before leaving the Ranthambore district later that morning, I had coffee with Dr Goverdhan Singh Rathore, who owns Khem Villas hotel, adjacent to Sher Bagh, and who has been involved with the park and tiger conservation for most of his life. In the early 1980s, it was his father, Fateh Singh Rathore, who was largely responsible for the creation of the park area out of the former hunting ground of the Maharajah of Jaipur. There has been little evidence that tigers are stressed by tourism, Goverdhan commented. “Besides, if they object to being seen they won't stay put. After all, you rarely see a number of vehicles grouped around a leopard,” he said. “If an animal doesn't like being looked at then it simply melts into the jungle.”
Just as our tiger cub had done that morning.
If You Go...
Harriet O'Brien travelled to India with Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk), which offers a week's trip to Delhi and Ranthambore from £2,150pp/R30 000 (based on two sharing a room).
The price includes flights from Heathrow, two nights at the Oberoi in Delhi, return rail transfer to Sawai Madhopur and onward transport, four nights' full board at Sher Bagh and six game drives in Ranthambore.
(Note that generally a few weeks' notice is required for game trip bookings.)
Sher Bagh (00 91 11 4606 7608; sujanluxury.com) charges from INR28,750 per night for full board in one of 12 stylish tents.
Incredibileindia.org - The Independent on Sunday