The first place one thinks of when talking about Bengal tigers is Ranthambhore. Located in Rajasthan, it’s long been the world’s favourite place to see the tiger. Everything from its forest to its mountains to its fort are the tiger’s domain.

Ranthambhore is also a favourite amongst wildlife photographers. Especially those chasing the otherwise elusive big cat. The tigers there are known to pose for photographers. The most famous being Machali, one of the world’s most photographed Bengal tigers. Now 18 years old, she’s also the oldest living wild tiger in the world.

The Ranthambhore landscape. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

The landscape is a beautiful mix of forests, mountains, soil and rocks. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

Ranthambhore is surrounded by two rivers, Banas in the north and Chambal in the south. Between them, on the edge of a plateau lies this incredible forest. Most of Ranthambhore is characteristic of the deciduous forests found in central India. Yet there are parts where the terrain changes completely. Trees give way to mountains and the soil to rock, giving it the most incredible landscape.

I would be there for a week and I would visit the forest 10 times. At the time it seemed good enough, considering it was Ranthambhore. Everyone almost always saw a tiger. Almost always.

Crested serpent eagle, Ranthambhore. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

One of the twelve crested serpent eagles I saw in Ranthambhore. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

I saw my first tiger within 10 minutes of entering the forest on my first safari. It was one of the largest male tigers there, T-24. He was taking his afternoon nap. We stuck around for a while, then drove ahead and came back to the place just before sunset. Word had spread and there were many cars there. But luckily, the tiger walked out of the thicket right opposite my car. There he was, the King, looking straight at me. He was probably as big as the car I sat in, and he was hardly 15 feet away. It feels surreal to be that close to a tiger, let alone being that close to one looking straight at you. It didn’t last long, though. Seeing the number of cars around, he turned back into the thicket and disappeared.

Along with tigers, Ranthambhore is also an excellent place for birders. More than 200 local and migratory birds are found in the area and it’s easy seeing a bird up close. Never before have I been to a place where I’ve seen more raptors. Owls, buzzards, ospreys, shikras, vultures and eagles –  I saw them all. In my one week there, I saw a total 72 species of birds.

Oriental darter at sunrise. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

An Oriental darter at sunrise. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

By the fifth day, I’d had my fill of birds, mammals and reptiles, all but the tiger. The only tiger I’d seen was T-24 in the first safari. On my other trips, I would see at least one tiger a day. Here I was, in the heart of tiger country and I had seen one, in four days. But I wouldn’t see one that day either.

A part of me felt dejected. It was my last safari and I was desperate to see a tiger. A short drive into the forest we heard an alarm call and saw something move in the bushes. It was a tiger. But within a few seconds, it climbed over a mountain and disappeared. Having completely lost hope to see one now, we drove along. Then, out of nowhere – more alarm calls. This time they were close and we rushed toward them. We got there just in time to see a leopard grabbing a langur and running up a mountain. The entire hunt lasted a fraction of a second. The other langurs were confused and still gave alarm calls. Amongst them, a baby shrieked – its mother was between the leopard’s jaws. We sat there watching the leopard walk away with its meal, looking at each other in disbelief.

Leopard walking up a mountain with a langur in its mouth. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015.

Leopard walking up a mountain with a langur in its mouth. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

It’s uncommon to see animals hunt in India. To see a leopard hunt, is even rarer. Before long it was time to head back out of the forest – for the last time. But I was happy. I had seen something a few will ever see. And even though the tiger eluded me, the forest more than made up for it. I couldn’t have asked for a better going away gift!

Until next time, Ranthambhore.