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A View from the Top: Corbett National Park

by Mark Dhruv

Corbet 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 sweaty anticipation.

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 Ramnaga River.

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 hunger.

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
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
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 ecosystem.

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 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 capitol. 

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:

http://www.percepticon.com/penpalscrapbook/html/explore_india.html. 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!

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Email:  Mark Dhruv

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.)

 

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