A View from the Top: Corbett National Park
||In the foothills of the Himalayas
northeast of Indiaís thriving capital city of New Delhi lays 201
square miles of prime tiger habitat known as Corbett National
Park. It is a small part of the Kumaon region that was once
dominated by the Bengal Tiger, much like the humans that inhabit
the area now rule over natureís slipping grasp.
But the tigerís
endangered population, though declining at an alarming rate, has a hold
on the land and its people that has yet to be relinquished.
The old female elephant picked its way carefully
through the thick underbrush despite the insistent prodding by our
driver whose sharp, piercing blue eyes scanned the riverís floodplain
for even a fleeting glimpse of the elusive tiger. More than once, with
an agility that belied its size, my pachyderm turned sharply either by a
silent command from the driver or by her own intuition that what her
passengerís wanted was somewhere near. Finding a tiger among the
myriad of colors and plant-life that surrounded us was difficult enough
and seeing the animal once located was another problem. Camouflaged with
black slashing stripes amid a deep orange coat was an evolutionary trait
that made the tiger so successful at hunting- and difficult to spot for
even the practiced eye.
A momentary thrill arose with the warning bark of a
sambar- an ungulate similar in size to the American elk- whose
cries silenced the jungle. A sudden hush descended over the thick forest
canopy, as all creatures within hearing distance of the alarm call knew
a predator was near. Our elephant guide turned to us a put a finger to
his lips, a move that was highly unnecessary as I held my breathe in
The sambar was one of the Bengal tigerís staples
along with the chital (a smaller animal of the deer family). This
particular animal was a buck whose warnings went out to his female
charges scattered throughout the dense woods bordering the winding
A tense few moments pervaded throughout the forest as
all ears, human or otherwise, pricked forward at the slightest sound.
Even the ever-present gnats ceased their buzzing while we all tried in
vain to detect the tigerís whereabouts. Then, when the sweat began to
roll freely into my eyes, our elephant casually broke the tension and
seized the moment to grab a few bites of woody debris to curb its
The possibility of spotting a tiger in the middle of
the day was a rarity. Not only were they nocturnal hunters, but these
masters of disguise would only be seen if they so chose. Satisfying a
gaggle of tourists atop an intrusive elephant was obviously not in the
tigerís best interest.
Langur monkeys taking a break from a mid-day snack
|With a grunt of irritation, our driver spurred on the old
lady and we continued through the thickets. His eyes now focusing
upwards into the treetops pointing out a pair of langur monkeys
that happily resumed their chatter.
Our primary reason for coming to this remotely located
National Park was to lay our virgin eyes on one of natureís
perfect beasts. Though the prospects did not look promising to
catch a glimpse of a tiger, what we experienced instead was
something just as profound.
Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve was aptly
named after Jim Corbett, a big game hunter turned conservationist, in
1957. Corbett hunted tigerís not for trophies, but for the benefit of
the local villages in the upper regions of the Indian state of Uttar
Pradesh. Man-eaters killed local villagers with such regularity that
they virtually controlled the number of humans inhabiting the area with
their presence. By the mid-1920ís Jim Corbettís effect on the tiger
population combined with the popularity of tiger hunting by maharajas
and wealthy foreigners brought their numbers dangerously low. Add to
that the increase in human population and their expansive land usage for
farming; the tiger became less of a fearsome beast and more of an icon
of the Indian jungles destined to become only a memory. Their plight,
recognized early by the far-sighted Corbett, thrust him into the
limelight of tiger conservation.
Bird-nests in a sal tree
|In a land where the human population borders on the billion
mark these prized acres of preserved forest are a boon not only to
the tiger, whose numbers are steadily rising despite consistent
poaching, but for the diverse wildlife that inhabits such a rich
Over 500 species of birds roost or sojourn here on a yearly
basis, many of them water fowl attracted by the lake that was
formed after the damming of the Ramnaga River.
|Over 500 species of birds roost or sojourn here
on a yearly basis, many of them water fowl attracted by the lake
that was formed after the damming of the Ramnaga River.
The Ramnaga River
|The riparian corridor formed by the Ramnaga River is home to
a variety of water dwelling reptiles.
One of them is the gharial, a fish-eating member of the
crocodile family that a sharp-eyed tourist might be able to
distinguish from a log on the riverís bank.
Another resident that occupies the upper canopy of Corbett
National Park is the langur monkey.
With their thick gray fur and black faces they are
frequently seen and heard throughout the park, especially near one of
the villageís outdoor eating areas. With an
insatiable fondness for omelets, their sudden powerful leaps and quick
hands were no match for my feeble attempt at saving my breakfast. One
pleasant morning, I had a close encounter with one of these primates
after a lightening quick snatch blasted my chili and masala omelet in
all directions, most of it ending up in the lemurís jaws.
Their cousins, the macaques, are a little less
brave and stick mostly to the forests, occasionally playing in the
open space of Corbettís only road and are easily observed flitting
from tree to tree.
The largest occupant of the parkís savannahs is
the Indian elephant. These animals stand a little shorter than their
African cousins, but are no less intimidating, especially when showing
their displeasure at our presence. At one point during a morning jeep
safari, a young male brandished his newly formed tusks and gave a few
mock charges toward our tattered and dusty old vehicle. Separated from
his herd, he followed our jeep as we sped down the bumpy dirt road
listening to his snorts. Curiosity or anger, it was hard to tell, but
full-grown or not, we kept our distance.
Though rich in wildlife and with unsurpassed scenic
beauty, Corbett National Park is not quite as popular as some of Indiaís
14 other national parks. The main reason may be that the propensity of
seeing a tiger is slim (unless you dare to travel at night) thus
sending many of the tourists to other parks like Ranthambore Tiger
Reserve. But its seclusion and lack of a large commercial presence
make Corbett a much more pleasurable experience.
Once inside the park, a single winding road takes
you to the small village of Dhikala where housing and limited food is
available. There is a library/museum there with a remarkably diverse
selection of reading material for its size.
Just outside the perimeter of the village is a
watchtower that you are allowed to walk to- mind you, only during
daylight hours. Tigers own the night and it is unwise, as one park
official put it, to walk about after dark. Here in Corbett, humans are
not the apex of the food chain.
The watchtower, once safely up in its fifty-plus
foot platform provides an excellent view of the expansive floodplain
of the Ramnaga River. With a good pair of binoculars and some spicy
snacks from the village store to get you through the day, there is a
chance you may spot a rare tiger strolling through dry grass- maybe on
its way for a cool dip in the river or perhaps to finish off a meal
from the previous nightís hunt. While looking youíll end up
absorbing a spectacular array of wildlife that is incomparable to most
places in the world.
In 1973 the World Wildlife Fund created Project
Tiger with its goals to save the Bengal Tiger from the brink of
extinction and provide a safe environment for them to thrive. Though
increasing in numbers, the overwhelming success of the project has yet
to be recognized, as forces working against the tiger are so dominant.
In 1998 Indiaís tiger population stood at a
conservative 2500 individuals. The Bengal Tiger, one of five remaining
subspecies left in the world, has the most stable population, which
does not bode well for the other four sub-species. In Corbett National
Park, their numbers in 1972 stood at 44 and rose to 90 in 1984, but
this increase, in large part, was due to outside animals moving into
the more congenial surroundings of the reserve. Since then their
population has remained relatively constant.
Valued for their medicinal properties and as an
aphrodisiac, killed as trophies for hunters and irresponsible tourism
practices (such as night safariís resulting in attacks by a
surprised tiger) the tiger is in dire straits. Increased awareness and
conservation education may be this animalís only salvation. In
Corbett National Park, the effort to save these amazing animals is
alive and kicking.
A friendly warning to the adventurous soul
|To see the plight of the Bengal Tiger and its shrinking
environment is a worthwhile excursion. Traveling through India
can be a challenge so I recommend having your trip carefully
planned out in advance. If you are going to leave from New Delhi
to visit Corbett, take a train (I desperately recommend 1st
class A.C. and avoid Ďgeneral boardingí like the plague) to
Ramnagar- just an overnight trip northeast of Indiaís bustling
Once in this town, which is located on the
outskirts of Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve, you may be able
to hire a driver or take a bus into the park. The park office in
Ramnagar will have the necessary permit information, but it is wise to
have your transportation booked and a good knowledge of how to acquire
a park permit before getting to Ramnagar. You can find out more about
the park and visitor information at numerous different websites- a
good one is:
Follow the "Indian Wildlife" link through to Information on
Corbett Tiger Reserve and the Lonely Planet Guide on India has
excellent resource numbers. India is a diverse country rich in history
and culture, but it is not necessarily a tourist friendly country. My
advice to you is- be prepared and enjoy!
# # #
Email: Mark Dhruv
holds a degree in marine biology from Texas A&M. He has tried to
take advantage of what he describes as "the adventurous lifestyle
of a researcher." From braving 50-foot swells in the Bering Sea to
analyzing tiny critters in the depths of the Sea of Cortez, his travels
have just begun. An avid backpacker and outdoor enthusiast, he has
trekked through Indiaís northern states on a shoestring budget and
floated the maze of rivers in Ecuadorís Amazon Basin.
While living in Arizona, Mark divided his time
between carpentry and working as a diver in the Gulf of California. Now
he spends his time in the Pacific Northwest, drinking lots of coffee,
kayaking the Puget Sound, and exploring Washington and British
Columbiaís numerous ski resorts for that perfect run. (More about this writer.)