Have a cat fancy? Earn your stripes on a luxury tiger safari in India

Have a cat fancy? Earn your stripes on a luxury tiger safari in India

While African lions nap in the sun, unbothered by the safari vehicles overflowing with noisy tourists, India’s Bengal tigers are more sensitive.

Always on the move, always searching for prey, across a territory that extends over 17 to 20 square miles, finding one can feel like finding a moving needle in a jungle-sized haystack.

That’s why — unlike African safaris where the national parks are enormous, the Land Rovers cruise at top speed and the gin and tonics flow like water — Indian safaris are exercises in restraint.

Ranthambore National Park, widely considered the best destination for spotting Bengals, is about one-tenth the size of Tanzania’s Serengeti, and is sub-divided into 10 zones. Admission into the park allows for driving through one zone at a time, and zones are assigned at random upon arrival. There are morning and afternoon admission periods, so you can manage two game drives per day.

Exterior of a tiger walking near a safari Jeep.
A slowly improving population of fearsome felines in India means that right now is your best chance in decades to find a big, beastly Bengal in the wild.

The safari guides here drive a bit slower, speak in more hushed tones and stop more often to read the signs of the jungle. You quickly learn that the forest isn’t chaos, but a matrix of interconnected clues. The way the wind blows affects how easily deer are alarmed. The abundance, or absence, of bird song can signal that a man-eater lurks around the next corner. Paw prints in the dirt disappear with the wind.

For all of those reasons, tiger safaris have the difficult reputation of not always delivering. Some make the long journey only to strike out. After all, only 3,726 to 5,578 tigers currently live in the wild worldwide, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Mere dozens live here.

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But for the wildlife enthusiast, the big cat fancier and the history lover, there is no more quintessential or rewarding experience — and there has never been a better time to visit than now. According to a 2022 report, Ranthambore’s tiger population grew from 63 to 80 tigers in two years.

Exterior of a Bengal tiger in India.
Ranthambore’s tiger population grew from 63 to 80 tigers in two years.

Better still, earlier this year, India debuted phase one of its enormous Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, a sprawling eight- to 12-lane monstrosity connecting the country’s two largest cities. What was once a six-hour road trip from Delhi to Ranthambore can now be completed in a little over three hours — meaning you can land in Delhi International Airport in the morning and travel to Ranthambore in time for an afternoon game drive.

You’ll want to spend as much time as possible here, after all.

Located in the state of Rajasthan 220 miles southwest of Delhi and 120 miles southeast of Jaipur, Ranthambore is a place steeped in history and mystery. The ancient Aravalli Range runs through this region, and nestled high up in those mountain stands the legendary Ranthambore Fort, a medieval fortress once considered the most impregnable stronghold in the world.

Exterior of Ranthambore.
Ranthambore is located in the state of Rajasthan, some 220 miles southwest of Delhi.
Todd Plummer

Exterior of a Bengal tiger in India.
The remote area is a cat lover’s dream.
Todd Plummer

The park is therefore less of a wilderness and more of a graveyard, teeming with ruins from the past and landmarks of vanished empires. While searching for tigers, you’re likely to pass under the imposing ramparts of the fort, or drive by an abandoned lakefront pleasure palace.

Driving up to the main entrance brings you through a succession of soaring medieval gates overrun with banyan tree roots — about as close to “Tomb Raider”or “The Jungle Book” as it gets.

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Just outside the park’s gates, you’ll find a multitude of accommodations ranging from backpacker hostels to Aman Resorts’ posh Aman-i-Khás. But if you’re looking for authenticity, style and the best guides in town, you’ll want to stay at Sher Bagh, a luxury tented camp from Suján, an experiential, conservation-driven hospitality company owned by the entrepreneur, polo player and man-of-the-world Jaisal Singh.

Exterior of Sher Bagh camp.
Sher Bagh suites start at $720 in the low season.

Posed shot of a dish of snacks at Sher Bagh.
Après-safari snacks at the swish Sher Bagh camp is half the fun of a trip to Ranthambore, India.

Singh’s parents, a pair of passionate conservationists, first came to this area in 1974 when there was little more than a small village and some tigers in the woods beyond. The Singhs were among the first to film the tigers of Ranthambore, and they lobbied the Indian government to turn this area into a national park.

Today, as a provider of numerous jobs to the local community, a sponsor of schools, and operator of mobile health clinics to provide healthcare, Suján is an invaluable part of the region’s human landscape.

It’s also one of the most luxurious. Part of the Relais & Châteaux network, Sher Bagh boasts organic farm-to-table cuisine and tasteful tented suites done in a 1920’s-inflected “campaign style.” The camp underwent a COVID-era renovation, adding glossy new updates including an expanded pool deck, a library and a two-bedroom Family Suite set within its own private walled garden.

Exterior of guests doing yoga at Sher Bagh.
Cats — big and small — have mastered the art of stretching, and yogis at Sher Bagh are learning from them.

Come nightfall, guests linger around the bar and exchange tiger stories as attendants festoon the camp with hundreds of flickering lanterns, lending an air of romance and adventure. Suites start around $720 in the low season.

While Sher Bagh has no shortage of creature comforts, it’s the guides that make all the difference here. They’re some of the longest-serving and best-trained working in the park today, and when it comes to setting you up for a successful tiger sighting, they understand the difference between cheap shots and playing the long game.

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My guide, Yusuf Ansari, was so familiar with the movements of one tigress that when a dozen other game vehicles congregated on one side of a lake for a chance at spotting her tail flicking in the reeds, he directed our driver to wait on the opposite side of the lake. He knew full well that she would eventually emerge with a superior full-on view.

We waited for over an hour under the hot Rajasthani sun and then our tigress emerged from the bush, not even 20 feet away, with stripes more vivid than any photograph and eyes more piercing.

“After decades of seeing so many, it’s always special,” said Ansari, with an added warning to the beguiled. “But don’t forget, their paws strike with 600 pounds of pressure per square inch. Your heart ends up where your appendix is, and not to mention the claws.”

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