A long time ago, in my schooldays, I had read about the legendary hunter Jim Corbett, who, in grand British tradition, hunted man-eating tigers and leopards and penned his jungle exploits in the Man-Eaters of Kumaon, but later became an ardent conservationist and protector of the tiger. I was thrilled by his adventures and dreamed of wandering in the forests where he dared to pit his wits against the most magnificent creature in the Indian jungle – the Royal Bengal tiger.
One late February weekend, my dream came true when I stopped in Delhi to meet some friends – wildlife lovers like me who share a passion for trekking in the wild and writing about nature. Colonel Surinder Singh of ‘Eco Adventures’ in Delhi was one of these friends, and director of the Tiger Camp in Corbett Tiger Reserve in Nainital district in Uttarakhand.
When he heard about my three-decade of writing about wildlife, Singh asked me whether I would like to visit Kumaon and walk the land of Jim Corbett and his man-eating tigers. He mentioned that Corbett National Park is India’s first National Park and acts as a protected area for the critically endangered Bengal tiger, the survival of which is the main objective of Project Tiger, an Indian wildlife protection initiative.
That is how I came to be on the late-night Ranikhet Express, chugging towards Ramnagar railway station, a short ride away from Corbett National Park. The dark hours of dawn still had a nip in the air when the train pulled into Ramnagar. A Tiger Camp representative was waiting in a jeep to take me into the heart of Kumaon, often described as the ‘Fabled Fairyland’ of India.
A thin mist hung around the trees and morning birds cried out shrilly as the jeep sped up the mountain on a 15-minute drive to the camp six kms away, where, after freshening up and enjoying a piping hot breakfast in my cottage suite on the banks of the Kosi river, I was raring to go into the jungle. My anticipation knew no bounds and I recalled reading somewhere about Corbett Tiger Reserve, that it is the ‘Land of trumpets, roar and song, forest of flowing rivers, blue waters and sal-filled glades of tiger and elephant, with 585 species of birds.’
But since the first safari had already left, I explored the Kosi river, where my guide, naturalist Satpal Sandhu, showed me a natural spring, flowing out of the dry riverbed. Sandhu claimed Corbett Park contains 488 different species of plants and whetted my appetite by detailing what else I could see on the safari besides tigers – everything from amazing jungle views, several kinds of antelopes, birds, Langur monkeys, and of course, leopards and elephants!
Sandhu said over 585 species of resident and migratory birds have been categorised, including crested serpent eagles, blossom headed parakeet and the red jungle fowl – ancestor of all domestic fowl. Thirty-three species of reptiles, seven species of amphibians, seven species of fish and 37 species of dragonflies have also been recorded. Corbett’s main vegetation is the Chaur – vast tracts of magnificent grassland that are the result of ancient forest clearings made for agriculture, and now a haven to many species that are specialised to living in the tall grass.
The afternoon was spent in trekking the mountainside, where elephants had dropped piles of dung while feeding off branches of the favoured ‘Rohini’ trees on their migration route. For a brief instant, a lone mother elephant urgently nudging her baby across the road, passed by us before she harrumphed away with her cub. In the summer, elephants are seen in large herds of several hundreds. The summer season lasts from March to June, when the temperature can go up to 44 degrees, and the winter season from November to February.
There are four park ranges where the private resorts are situated – Bijrani on the Kosi river, Durgadevi on the Ramganga river, Sitabani and Jhirna. Another range which is 40 kms from Bijrani gate is the Dhikala Range, deep inside the jungle, where chances of a tiger sighting are maximum, but only two forest resthouses are allowed here. Dhikala and Bijrani are closed from mid-June to mid-November for the monsoons. Jhirna and Sitabani in the buffer zone are open all year.
The next day saw me and another tourist head by jeep to the Dhikala Forest Range resthouse, a three-hour drive away, where we passed through towering forests of Sal trees, (Surya Robusta), that were used for building bridges and homes during British rule.
As we stopped at a cliff called ‘High Bank’ enroute, peering through my camera lens, I suddenly noticed two golden forms swimming lazily in the clear waters of the Ramganga river far below. I was excited to discover that these were the famous ‘Golden Mahseer’ game fish, which were providing anglers a good fight for their money.
At Dhikala, we landed in time for the afternoon elephant ride, where two female elephants carried four tourists each, on a two-hour ride into the jungle. Luck didn’t seem to favour us in our efforts to spot the famed striped cat as the mahouts criss-crossed the area above the river bank, often passing crumpled bushes where the tiger had sat barely a few minutes ago, before slinking off into deeper forest cover.
To add to our misery, as our elephant climbed the mountain to a meeting spot with the other elephant, she suddenly stumbled into a hole created by a rotten tree trunk, but managed to find solid footing and prevented us from toppling down the mountainside.
However, her shrieking trumpet of alarm brought the other elephant rushing to her side with trunk raised, where both assured each other – and the mahout checking her foot – that she had suffered no harm.
Suddenly our luck changed, because a girl sitting behind me shouted ‘Tiger’ and we got to see the king of the jungle – or rather Queen, since this was a tigress – her eyes glaring at us from a bushy area, with two little cubs nearby, before striding off into the dusk of the dark forests ahead of our jeep. Our appetite was whetted for more tiger sightings, b ut mahout Namdar Ali on our elephant Sonapari observed that ‘the night is the hour of the tiger and we cannot play with him in his domain.’
So it was with great shock when, in the last rays of the setting sun, we saw a form slinking by ahead of us, which we thought for a moment was another tiger, only to discover a rather shy leopard, creeping past with its head down and then gazing inquisitively at us from a distance once it was out of harm’s way. It was the highlight to our day.
Smaller felines in the park include the Jungle Cat, Fishing Cat and Leopard Cat. Other mammals include four kinds of deer (barking, sambar, hog, Black buck and chital), which we saw in plenty, as well as Sloth and Himalayan Black bears, Indian Grey Mongoose, otters, yellow-throated martens,
ghoral (goat-antelopes) and Indian pangolins. Owls and Nightjars are heard at night.
On the return journey, a lone bull elephant sporting huge tusks strode out of the forest to cross the Ramganga river, and raised his trunk in query towards us before marching on majestically. Namdar Ali said elephants sometimes strayed into the camp premises in search of food and drink and could be dangerous if confronted.
When we returned to camp, Bhanu Ram – who worked as a waiter for 35 years in the restaurant — told us about a tigress’ attack on a camp dweller, after which the resthouse area was surrounded by electric fencing. Bengal tigers, although plentiful, are not easily spotted due to the abundance of camouflage in the reserve, often causing impatient tourists to disturb its feeding and rest. At Tiger Camp, I rushed to the Ramnagar government resthouse in search of that tigress’ victim – who had survived the attack but was under medical treatment - but he had gone off to his house in nearby Haldwani village. His brother Ramesh narrated the gory story and said that Madan Chand Pandey had required 186 stitches and still needs regular treatment.
He said tourists had disturbed the tiger’s hunt during the day, due to which a deer escaped, which could have fed her hungry cubs. Angered by that human intrusion in her domain, the tigress made her presence felt that night in the Dhikala camp – albeit near fatally. About 141 tigers prowl the Reserve, with the striped predator killing cattle rather than humans today.
‘The paperwork for claiming compensation of cattle killed by tigers takes time and so many villagers poison the carcass to kill such predators,’ according to one villager. However, increased awareness by wildlife NGOs had led to a drop in such incidents, said Tiger Camp representative Dhaniram.
The Corbett museum at the entrance of the Reserve to Dhikala was an exciting surprise. I saw the mounted body of a massive tiger that had died battling an elephant in a night-long encounter. Colonel Surinder Singh, director of Tiger Camp in Corbett Tiger Reserve, said today’s tourist is very discerning and is seeking high-quality eco-tourism, which is why many of them come to Tiger Camp, whose rooms, ambience and service try to implement eco-friendly practices in ways big and small. Singh’s words about the ‘discerning’ tourist were proved right when I met virologist David Matson of Virginia in the USA, who had taken time off from his physician’s practice in a well-known hospital to do what he loved best – bird-watching.
Matson was making his first tourism foray into India and had chosen Corbett reserve to begin his wildlife journey. As the jeep carrying him and me along with naturalist and bird expert Hari Lama, drove off for a two-and-half day’s journey to the wildlife camp in Dhikala, out came his bird-shooting armoury. Matson was shooting birds with a tiny Nikon digital camera – but with a special adaptor-fitted telescope as a separate viewer, alongside his binoculars. And the picture results were really spectacular.
My last evening witnessed me sitting around a campfire with other tourists and listening to naturalist Dhaniram narrating jungle tales, accompanied by a wildlife movie. Visiting Corbett turned out to be an awesome experience, where the rough landscape existed side by side with fully-independent air-conditioned suites, and cottages with sheer cliff backdrops. Modern amenities and room service offering authentic Kumaoni food were complemented with folk dances and wildlife movies, bonfires and barbecues, unforgettable jeep and elephant rides, trekking, bird-watching, river bathing and picnics, as well as rock climbing and rappelling for the more adventurous. Visitors are urged to wear jungle colours and travel light (duffel bag) and carry binoculars for viewing wildlife.
Nearby areas that can be visited are Pangot, along with Bhimtal / Sattal / Naukuchiatal and Nainital. The forest resthouses at Dhikala can be booked with the KMVN office locally for at least two days, but tourists can come here for day trips and basic food is available. Go rafting on the river Kosi, fishing on the Ramgamga, or visit a local Kumaoni village, the Sitabani Ashram in the virgin forest area, the Garjia temple or Corbett Museum.