But in contrast to many African safaris in privately owned game reserves, Indian tiger excursions sometimes take on a carnival atmosphere. At Bandhavgarh and Kanha, where naturalist Wright's parents founded one of the park's first game lodges, a key attraction is the "tiger show." Park staff with walkie-talkies set out on elephant back to locate a tiger; when they do, tourists board their own elephants to come in for a closer view.
And while the England-based Travel Operators for Tigers posts codes of conduct that include competent tour guides who carry "suitable maps, a mammal guidebook, bird books and other material to show/illustrate what is being seen," critics complain that a "tiger-centric" culture prevails.
Some well-traveled wildlife aficionados, like recent Ranthambhore visitor Jane Hughes of Cambridge, England, are nonplussed by their Indian experience.
Despite multiple tiger sightings, some at close range, "it was all so frenetic and haphazard with vehicles roaring around, and lots of people shouting and generally not behaving as one would expect around endangered animals," Hughes says. "It left me with the feeling that all those cubs born this year may have a bleak future."
Ranthambhore's visitor regulations, which include a limit on the number and type of tour vehicles allowed into the park each day and a new lottery system for assigning game drive routes, are clearly subject to interpretation.
One guide said that despite the lottery, in which visitors draw zone assignments out of a bag when entering the main gate, those willing to pay an extra 500 rupees (about $12.50) could wrangle a drive through choice "zone three," which encompasses the park's scenic lakes and is prime tiger territory. And during a recent three-hour morning game drive, all eight allotted tourist vehicles backed up behind several jeep-loads of "V.I.P.s," with frustrated tourists waiting half an hour while the officials trained their binoculars and cameras on a reclusive tiger.
"Everybody blames tourism, because it's such an easy, visible target," says lodge owner Goverdhan Singh Rathore, who grew up in Ranthambhore as the son of the park's first game warden, Fateh Singh Rathore.
But compared with poaching, habitat degradation and pervasive corruption, he says, "tourism is the least of the tigers' problems. The fact is that tourism keeps park management on its toes. Out of sight means out of mind."
Wright isn't so sure: "At the moment, tourism is keeping tigers safe because it helps keep the bloody poachers out," she allows. But, she says, "in a national park, the wildlife should come first. We have too few tigers to push them over the brink with undisciplined tourism."
Meanwhile, the chance — however slim — of spotting one of the world's most ravishing animals is a powerful draw, notes Gerhard Wiehahn, general manager of Ranthambhore's Aman-i-Khas lodge, part of the ultra-luxe Aman Resorts group.
"Most people are trying to squeeze in all of India in two or three weeks, and they come to see a tiger, not have a typical safari experience. At the end of the day, nothing else matters," he says. "And if the tiger goes, all of us can lock our doors and go home."
Says Rathore: "I'd like to see the Taj Mahal by myself on a full-moon night, but I can't. Nature is becoming scarcer and scarcer, and everyone wants to see a tiger. They are symbols of nature that give people a reason to live."