"Come! Quickly! A tiger is calling!"
Seconds after guesthouse owner Usha Singh Rathore sounds the alarm, her guests gleefully abandon their Indian Sauvignon Blanc and garlic-studded naan to cluster around the dwindling remains of a nearby bonfire. Peering into the darkness, they're rewarded with a guttural, spine-tingling roar: an unseen queen of the jungle, looking for a potential king.
"That was close," says Usha's husband, Goverdhan, pointing toward a brushy area only two football fields away.
And a good omen, as well.
The tigress' come-hither command is the first the couple has heard in two years of living on the fringes of Ranthambhore, about 300 miles southeast of New Delhi in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Once a private hunting ground for maharajahs, this 155-square-mile enclave is the country's most famous and visited tiger preserve — and a key battleground in a desperate and complicated fight to save India's national symbol from extinction.
When Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in 1894, a century after William Blake's evocative ode, as many as 50,000 Bengal tigers roamed Indian forests, stalked by elephant-riding marksmen who retired to opulent lodges once they'd bagged their big cats.
India, still home to nearly half of the world's wild tigers (estimated at fewer than 5,000), banned their hunting in 1970. But the country's ballooning human population (now 1.1 billion) and corresponding pressure on native habitat, coupled with governmental corruption and poachers responding to an illegal demand for tiger pelts and body parts in China and Southeast Asia, have sent the animal's ranks plummeting.
Worldwide, tiger numbers have declined by 95% over the past 100 years — and according to preliminary results in a new study by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India, fewer than 1,500 remain here. Most are confined to national reserves such as Ranthambhore and central India's Bandhavgarh and Kanha (inspiration for TheJungle Book), but that doesn't ensure their safety: Only a handful of the country's 28 reserves still shelter sustainable breeding populations, and the animals disappeared entirely from Rajasthan's popular Sariska reserve after a poaching scandal in 2004.
Scenic Ranthambhore, with its towering, 10th-century fortress, wooded ravines and man-made lakes ringed by the crumbling remains of royal hunting lodges, has a long reputation as one of India's most likely places to spot stripes. An estimated 75% of photographs and documentaries of Bengal tigers in the wild have been taken here, and the park is a favorite among foreign tourists. Some 30 hotels and lodges, about a third of them built in the past few years, flank the narrow road that links the park to the closest town and railway station in Sawai Madhopur (aka "Tiger City").
One of the area's newest lodging options is the Rathores' Khem Villas, an unpretentiously swank 15-room retreat that boasts a vegetarian menu with ingredients plucked from the owners' adjacent farm, private patios with outdoor showers and massive stone bathtubs, and lotus-speckled water hole with a resident crocodile. (No worries, he's shy.)
Come evening, an international smorgasbord of guests gathers to nurse gin and tonics, nibble samosas and admire expansive views of clear night skies (a big selling point after a stay in India's notoriously polluted cities). And they debate the fate of the tigers with a family that knows them intimately.
Goverdhan's father, Fateh Singh Rathore, Ranthambhore's first game warden, was instrumental in relocating 16 villages outside park boundaries in the late 1970s. Goverdhan, a physician, founded a local hospital and private school (where, he says, 30% of students are on scholarship) and set up a biofuel project that reduces area deforestation by using dried cow-dung patties in lieu of firewood.
Despite the efforts of the Rathores and other tiger-philes, Ranthambhore's most famous denizens have suffered from many of the ills and pressures that vex other Indian reserves. Earlier this month, U.S. Embassy officials participated in a Ranthambhore forum exploring new ways to thwart poachers that allegedly wiped out half the park's tiger population (which numbered 47 at its peak) between 2003 and 2004. Worried about the growing impact of tourism, the park banned all safari vehicles for two weeks last December and launched a program this fall that restricts them to lottery-assigned zones during three-hour game drives available each morning and late afternoon.
Ranthambhore visitors are warned to set their expectations low. While the park's tigers have become so accustomed to humans that they're active during the day as well as at night, the chances of actually spotting one — particularly in the late fall when lingering foliage from the summer monsoon rains provides plenty of cover — are perhaps one in three.
But with the birth of at least 10 new cubs this year, boosting Ranthambhore's estimated tiger count to 36, longtime park watchers see at least a glimmer of optimism — and so do fingers-crossed, camera-draped visitors determined to beat the odds.
In contrast to the well-orchestrated, Jurassic Park-type experiences available at several privately owned African wildlife preserves, game drives here can be disorganized, even chaotic affairs. Six-passenger jeeps called "gypsies" and open-sided, 20-passenger "canters" careen down the park's bone-jarring roads, so dusty during the winter dry season that the nearby Oberoi Vanyavilas gives its well-heeled guests surgical masks (along with hot water bottles and thick blankets) before outings.
And while Ranthambhore's other fauna and flora are mesmerizing in their own right — from black-faced langur monkeys scampering up the tangled roots of a massive mangrove tree to an Indian pond heron snagging a frog dinner in one decisive spear — they can receive short shrift from freelance park guides eager to earn a hefty tip by spotting the Big One.
None of which seems to bother Caroline Don and Eric van Pappel.
The list of countries the Amsterdam couple has already visited on safari reads like the location credits for a National Geographic highlights reel: Kenya, Namibia and Rwanda. South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Sure, they've enjoyed watching Ranthambhore kingfishers dart through the shallows of an ancient reservoir and gaggles of chital (spotted deer) meander through hillsides of tall brown grass. They're thrilled with a leopard's unusual daytime cameo, racing across the road in front of their gypsy in a magnificent blur.
But they have come to India on a mission: "There's a small part of all this that's like stamp collecting," van Pappel acknowledges. "But we're here because tigers are so beautiful, and so rare — and I worry that they're fighting a lost battle."
The outcome of that battle is still in the balance, and tilted against the tigers. But on this warm November afternoon, the iconic animals would seem to be holding their own.
Acting on a hunch and the knowledge that morning visitors had spotted tigers in the same area, park guide Balveer Singh tells his driver to pull to the side of the road. A sighting the day before had sparked a New Delhi-worthy traffic jam, complete with jabbing elbows and tourists banging on the side of their vehicles to spark an indifferent cat's attention. But today's passengers are alone when a sambar deer barks its warning: Tigers are close, and getting closer.
Moments later, the panicked elk-like creature crashes through the brush — hotly pursued by none other than Ranthambhore's biggest, most photographed star, the "Lady of the Lake," and her three, almost-grown female cubs.
Eyes widen. Camera shutters whirl. The sambar escapes, and the thwarted tigers retreat for a bath in a nearby stream. Padding a mere 50 yards from their human admirers, they are a picture of rippling, primal grace — and hope for the future.