Some 140 miles northeast of Delhi, off the Nainital route, this was tiger country in earnest. On one side of the roughly hewn country track ran a barbed wire fence of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. At a bend further down the track we came upon a mother and child elephant, so docile that we were tempted to get down for a closer look. We might have guessed! The two were tied down to stumps on the ground, meaning we had reached human habitation.
Soon we reached a clear stretch of proper mountain road leading to a number of riverside hotels on the periphery of the tiger reserve. Our destination that afternoon was the Holiday Camp Corbett, Dhikuli. What greeted us was a neat row of tents facing a flat open space stretching down to the river at the far end—a backpacker’s dream come true!
My friend Sheila, an enthusiastic photographer, and I had roped in our husbands for this weekend trip in June. After a refreshing drink of nimboo pani we stopped to take a dip in the cool river.
And then, a trip to the tiger park. At the entrance we were allotted a guide for our safety and for ensuring that we met the regulations of the sanctuary.
The drive through the dense jungle on a rough and bumpy track turned out to be fraught more with fun than danger. The guide, Santosh, asked us to slow down as our eyes scanned the surroundings for an ever-so-slight movement of wildlife. He then brought the car to a halt and with a finger on his lips, cautioned us to be silent.
On the left, a dozen antelopes lazing around a tiny pool of water were suddenly alerted. As though by some pre-planned signal, the largest ones—the size of buffaloes—fled to a hillock nearby. They waited for a fraction of a second for the young ones to catch up, and then disappeared at the batting of an eyelid. Sheila wanted to get down to take pictures. “No, no, Madam, that is not allowed. It can be risky, too. Some years ago a photographer was mauled while taking pictures,” Santosh insisted.
So we had to content ourselves with clicking from inside the car. In a way, we could count ourselves lucky. For, further into the core zone—constituting two-thirds of the whole reserve—neither our vehicles nor we would be allowed to upset the natural ecosystems.
The River Ramganga and its tributaries, which ran alongside the country track most of the time, had to be crossed at several places. We saw several mahseer, goonch, and other freshwater fish—some matching the size and weight of man—cavorting in the crystal clear waters of one of the tiny rivulets rushing to join the main river. Fishing was not allowed in these waters.
We turned to go back, disappointed that the only wildlife we had spotted in the noonday heat were some elephants, birds, buffaloes, antelopes, and deer. “Tigers and leopards come out after sundown when the animals come out to quench their thirst at the waterholes,” said Santosh.
Our first encounter with the felines was in the form of a huge skeleton, nearly as tall as a man, inside the Corbett Museum. Was this a male or female tiger, we wondered. Male, according to the attendant. “The females have longer fingers and a smaller face.” On display were several stuffed and preserved specimens of animals that had died a natural death in the tiger reserve. There was also a massive skeleton of a tusker that had been caught in a forest fire about a decade ago.
It was dusk by the time we stepped out of the museum: time for Corbett Tiger Reserve to close down for the day. “Move only in groups,” the gateman cautioned people walking back to villages in the buffer zone. Our holiday camp was just across the road, and since there was no fencing on this part of the reserve, the same warning applied to us too.
However, the gay and colorful lights and the lively music accompanying a fresh Kumaoni dinner of karhi, chutney, rice, and kheer in the camp, drove away all fears of being next to a jungle. “Tie up your tents all the same,” warned Mukesh Joshi, the owner of the camp. We did that, pleasantly surprised by the song of unseen insects that buzzed to life soon after we switched off the lights.
Little did we bargain for the jolt that came later in the night.
It must have been around midnight when we were rudely awakened by raucous noises not too far away. Peeping through a chink in the tent, we saw a dozen villagers armed with mashaals, sticks, and drums, rushing past while shouting wildly, “Baghera, baghera! (Tiger, tiger!)” The noise disappeared in the distance and we could hardly go back to sleep after that.
A tiger had been spotted in the area, we learned the next morning. As for saying hello to a tiger, our close encounter of the baghera kind was enough for meaty jungle stories for nights to come.
Writer and photojournalist Kumud Mohan lives in New Delhi.
JIM CORBETT:from hunterto conservationist
Colonel James Edward Corbett (1875-1955), an employee of the Indian Railways, realized after many years of indiscriminate hunting that every little living creature—be it a bird, or animal, a fish, a plant or even a grass—was vital to the existence of life on this planet.
An intrepid hunter to start with, Corbett first killed a leopard when he was just 10. He was the primary choice as leader during shikaar parties for dignitaries in the Himalayas during the British era. Corbett, who remained a bachelor all his life, was also a keen angler. He once caught a 50-pounder in the same area.
In the early 1930s, Corbett happened to be part of a waterfowl hunt in which three army officers shot 300 waterfowls. This heartless and needless carnage was the turning point of his life. Corbett would then make it a point not to kill animals unless they threatened human life. He became famous among the villagers in far-flung areas of Kumaon as “Carpet Sahib” and “gora sadhu” (the white sage), who could be counted upon to alleviate their woes in the wilderness.
In 1936, Jim Corbett pioneered the wildlife conservation movement in India and helped select areas for the first wildlife sanctuary in the country. The legendary hunter turned to shooting of a different kind. His films on Indian and African wildlife (Corbett retired to Kenya after World War II) are preserved in the Natural History Museum at London.
Indian conservationists proudly propagate Corbett’s simple philosophy: “Take nothing but photographs. Leave nothing but footprints.”
Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR)
Corbett Tiger Reserve, consisting of the Corbett National Park and the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary, is believed to possess the second-largest population of free living tigers in the world after the Sunderbans on the delta of the Ganga. The first wildlife sanctuary to be established in the Indian subcontinent way back in 1936, it is today a natural habitat for tigers, as well as for leopards, wild boar, bears, civets, jackals, foxes, otters, mongoose, monkeys, porcupines, and several types of reptiles, including snakes, tortoise, turtles, and lizards—many of these being endangered species. The area is also home to some 600 species of resident and migratory birds constituting more than the total bird diversity of Europe. CTR has about 110 species of trees and over 100 species of bamboos, shrubs, climbers, and grasses.
CTR is today one of the best-protected and richest wilderness zones in the world. Covering nearly 500 sq. miles of lush forests in a Himalayan valley 1,300 feet above sea level, it is enriched by the River Ramganga, its tributaries, and a reservoir. The swampy land in the upper Gangetic plain, favored by a temperate climate all year, is especially conducive to the proliferation of an amazing diversity of wildlife representing elements from both the Himalayan and peninsular regions of India.
CTR is open from Nov. 15 to June 15. Park regulations concerning visitors are available at the Visitor Centre, Dhangarhi and the Corbett Museum, Kaladhungi, which are open all year. Alcohol and non-vegetarian food are prohibited inside CTR. So is fishing without permit, walking, and trekking.
* Getting There
Ramnagar, the town nearest to CTR, is 4 miles away. It is connected by overnight express trains from Delhi and Lucknow and by bus or taxi to CTR.
The road route from Delhi (150 miles) is via Gajrola-Muradabad-Kashipur-Ramnagar.
* Places to Stay
There are several good hotels with air-conditioning and other comforts beside the Kosi river bordering CTR.
Infinity Resorts (05947) 251279
Corbett Riverview Retreat (05947) 284135
Corbett Riverside Resort (05947) 287925
For backpackers, Uttaranchal Tourism provides safe and comfortable tented accommodation at nominal rates. (05947) 251225.