T-17 was all attitude. Her mother, Machali, had ruled this territory for a decade, starring in multiple wildlife documentaries and becoming possibly the most photographed tiger on the planet. She had blessed the park with five litters, the first sired by Bamboo Ram, the big male that President Bill Clinton saw during his visit in 2000. But Machali was more than 11 years old now and had lost all her canines. T-17 was slowly displacing her.
We followed her up the jeep path. When she reached the top of a small rise she turned to stare back at us, posing travel-brochure-like. Almost an adult, T-17 was nearly the length of a living room sofa and would likely grow to well over 300 pounds. Ranthambhore had everything she needed. The Aravalli and Vindhya mountain ranges had collided here eons ago, creating undulating peaks, sharp ravines, and narrow valleys, a land teeming with tiger food. Earlier we’d seen herds of spotted deer and elk-like sambars grazing, wild boars snorting about the undergrowth, and langurs swinging from dhak trees. Most of the park’s 155 square miles are dry deciduous forest, which offers ample cover for the cats, as well as great sight lines for wildlife viewing. With Delhi just seven hours away, Ranthambhore is considered the best place on the planet to see a tiger, and as we watched T-17 saunter past an ancient Hindu shrine, a truckload of tourists roared up screaming, “Tiger! Tiger!” T-17 ignored them, but it was getting crowded. She slipped into the bushes and was gone.
Indians love their tigers, so when Khandal discovered in 2004 that poachers had decimated the population here, and news leaked that Rajasthan’s other tiger reserve, Sariska, had suffered an even worse fate—the loss of every single cat—it triggered national convulsions. Until that point, Project Tiger, a system of 27 reserves established in 1973, had represented one of the world’s great conservation stories. While tigers lost ground to humans in other countries, their numbers in India increased from about 1,200 to 3,600, transforming the nation into a proud bulwark against the threat of species extinction. But the Sariska and Ranthambhore meltdowns changed everything. If tigers could vanish from India, what chance did they have in less developed countries like Nepal and Cambodia?
India’s prime minister was so disturbed by the Sariska case that he turned the matter over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s FBI, an agency typically concerned with hunting terrorists. The CBI crushed a poaching ring in Sariska linked to international criminal kingpins. It also blasted the forest service’s management of the park, reporting that the “negligence of the staff is evident and overwhelming.” The crisis deepened when a task force reported similar negligence permeating the country’s entire tiger reserve system, and the coup de grâce came when a census later revealed that India had only 1,411 tigers. “India is letting the tiger slip through its fingers,” declared Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “It’s going to be one of the biggest conservation debacles the world has ever known.”
The silver lining, if there was one, was that officials had no choice but to double-down on tiger conservation. In 2007 the government pledged $125 million to create 12 new reserves and to improve existing ones. Sariska and Ranthambhore were beefed up with hundreds of ex-military personnel, and in time Ranthambhore’s tiger population rebounded. Last summer wildlife officials used a military helicopter to relocate a male and female from Ranthambhore to Sariska, to much media fanfare. Tigers once again roam Sariska, and Ramesh Mehrotra, chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan, now insists the future looks bright for India’s big cats. “We have arrested the poachers, and security has been enhanced,” he says. “Everything is under control.”