"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.