Endowed with rippling muscles and tipping the scales at 200 kg, the tiger is the most powerful predator of all wild felines. The striped, fiery-orange pelt commands universal appeal and, hence, tiger tourism is a major attraction in India. Tigers are undoubtedly the pride of Ranthambore National Park, but no less impressive is its dedicated bunch of nature guides and tourist guides in open-top Gypsies. Completely self-taught, the guides play a vital role in escorting and educating visitors on the nuances of nature watching.

Located near Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, about 170 km from Jaipur, Ranthambore is one of the best places to watch wild tigers in broad daylight. Dominated by a massive 10th-century fort, the landscape is a unique juxtaposition of natural wealth and historical treasures, with ruins of cenotaphs and cupolas jutting out of the forest foliage in many places.

A majority of the park’s 175 registered guides are directly dependent on it for their livelihood. Typically, skilled and experienced guides are assigned to tourists visiting the premium routes earmarked 1 to 5, while the greenhorns serve the far-flung routes numbered 6 to 10. Each of these routes is a paved gravel path zigzagging for up to 40 km in the park’s tourism zone. Only demarcated vehicles can ply here and each is helmed by friendly guides who stop-start with every sighting of a Nilgai, Spotted deer, Sâmbhar deer, wild boar, jackal or crocodile.

Suraj Bhai Meena is a rare female tourist guide, the only one in Ranthambore, who gamely does the rounds in the heat and dust. Having trained under her experienced brother for a year in 2007, she quickly learned the ropes. Inspired by her, three more women joined up but soon dropped out as they found it physically challenging.

“Identifying tigers with their assigned numbers — such as T-17 for Sundari, the pretty tigress, or T-24 for Ustad, the massive male — was the easy part. Recognising birds was also not difficult; even speaking manageable English was okay, but handling unruly tourists was the toughest. Fortunately, all my male colleagues help me in sensitive situations, so I decided to join as a regular from 2009,” Suraj says. She took a break for three years after she got married and had children, but returned with the encouragement of her husband. She is now a proud breadwinner with a monthly income of up to ₹20,000 in the peak season, besides winning two local awards for her courageous work.

Shard Ranthambore, an experienced guide and a past president of the Ranthambore Nature Guide Association, says earnings fluctuate with tourist inflows. Although there are handsome tips from a few satisfied tourists, especially foreigners, the average monthly income of a guide is only around ₹12,000. “Instead of helping us, the forest department actually levies a Tiger Reserve Development Fee (TRDF) on us. Even the tourism departments, which have huge budgets for publicity, seem to forget that we are integral to the entire tourism eco-system as we interact directly with the tourists,” he says.

“For instance, in the third week of June a pair of newborn tiger cubs was first espied by a tourist guide and the news spread like wildlife. Even the forest officials were unaware of it….”

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida