It is our first day at Ranthambore National Park, a gorgeous expanse of towering cliffs and thousand-year-old fortress ruins in the semi-desert state of Rajasthan, India. Our arrival here has coincided with freezing temperatures that swept down overnight from the Himalayas. It hasn’t been this cold here in 70 years, but despite the frigid weather, my traveling companion and I clamber into the back of an open jeep before dawn and roar down the road to the park, icy winds howling past our ears. We spend hours patrolling the forest as dust settles into the folds of our lap rugs.
After noon, the temperatures climb modestly, and we end up having a blue-ribbon day of wildlife sightings: chital deer, langur monkeys, a mongoose, a crocodile. We even get an up-close view of the ultra-rare jungle cat, a muscular feline about the size of a lynx. But we have not yet bagged the prize for which we’ve traveled halfway around the world: the Bengal tiger.
Tigers are rare these days, heartbreakingly rare. A 2018 census puts the world total at 3,890; at the time of our visit, there were even fewer. A few weeks before we left for India, a scandal broke. At Sariska, a reserve not far from Ranthambore, the combined pressures of human encroachment, genetic isolation and poaching wiped out the entire tiger population. Far from spotlighting the disaster, the authorities covered up the news. For months after the last cat vanished, tourists rode around Sariska in jeeps just like this one, looking for tigers that didn’t exist.