Tiger spotting in Corbett

“I think you should read this,” he told me, face aglow with enthusiasm. I nodded and gave him that some-time-later look. But Maddipatla Rajshekhar was insistent as he plucked the yellow-covered book from the shelf and thrust it into my hands.

Inventing Global Ecology seemed so boring I wouldn’t have read it even if I were serving a life sentence in Alcatraz. But these were exactly the kind of books that my good friend, former neighbour, and member of the Bombay Natural History Society loved to read. And quite appropriately, he was to accompany me on my visit to the Corbett National Park.

We all have alternate universes, temporary spaces we cultivate with like-minded people. Areas we flit in and out of as we go about paying bills,accumulating adipose and watching our hairlines recede. Some times, I figure, we’re happier there. Rajshekhar’s, as I’ve indicated earlier, was wildlife, ecology and other such stuff. He wouldn’t have presumed Livingstone to be Livingstone. Instead, he would have just said, “David, let’s not tarry, I’ve just spotted a Cockahoop Hulabaloo. Let’s go.” He would reprimand me if I called a fox a jackal, and emphasise the fact that there was nothing amusing about a bird being called the Indian Shag, nor about names such as the Edible nest Swiftlet, the Oriental Hobby, or the Masked Booby. In a way, it was even-stevens since any mention from me of a year-long journey across Siberia, or a Renault Clio V6’s  mid-engined power, would be met with a quizzical look from Rajshekhar.It was on a windy day that we left Delhi, with winter’s train receding in the distance. The sun had drenched the surrounding landscape in its golden light; mustard fields blazed past the speeding Palio and every now and then, we would spot the first of spring’s flowers being born. The six-hour drive was pretty uneventful, apart from Shekhar’s frantic clicking at the sight of vultures near a garbage dump, and my being prone to a number of hiccup attacks.Corbett country, or the road that leads one into the tiger reserve, was announced as much by the green cover that surrounded us as by the hoardings advertising hotels and resorts with names that either had Corbett or Tiger at their heads or tails. The trees on the outskirts of the park were a late wintry yellow and nearly the entire road was littered with dry, fallen leaves. Far into the distance were visible gentle, green mountains. We registered ourselves at the forest office in Ramnagar and also picked up a twosome, Man Singh and Priya, who had got tired of waiting for their transport which would take them into the reserve. By the time we reached the entrance of the park, Rajshekhar had hit it off pretty well with this pair who were also wildlife enthusiasts. The talk inside the Palio as it entered the forest was about Indian national parks, tiger sightings, deer and more such animals. I drove silently, dealing with my hiccups that seemingly leapt up from my solar plexus like a drooling dachshund at the dining table.

There was an eerie silence all around, as the Palio progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace. 15 kph was all I could do, any faster and Rajshekhar and Co couldn’t get to sight life in the wild. Shafts of sunlight struggled to break through the dense forest cover, and we drove on a dirt path always in the shade, crossing dried up streams littered with smooth boulders the colour of cloudy, cataract eyes. The Palio was reined in every now and then, as Shekhar and Co whipped out their cameras at the sight of a herd of deer or ma boar and kiddies; the clickety-clack of their excited cameras reverberating all around. There surely were more of the kind around, other living, breathing, watching creatures, but with nearly every sense deadened by the cosiness of civilisation, these would remain unseen. My hiccups by now had become nearly uncontrollable, and Shekhar was afraid that my epileptic vocal cords would scare the animals away. I, on my part, was mildly apprehensive about my hiccups sounding like the mating call of a python, in which case, a randy reptile would hang loose from a tall tree and whisk me away from the Palio; lathering my face with a cold, sloppy kiss.

It was a lonely journey, even though there were four of us in the car; a sense of self-imposed exile from almost every other kind of life, broken only by touristy forays like these.We reached Dhikala, the site of our forest guesthouse by early evening, and after dumping our bags, walked, not too far, to the edge of an embankment. It was a soothing sight. The swift Ramganga river flowing right below us, a verdant grassland stretching across its farside bank, and the hills beyond, all covered by a lacy curtain of mist. The entire complex was quiet, with only a sense of expectancy about tiger sightings bubbling above the otherwise sober demeanour of most of the guests.

Two tigers had apparently been sighted that evening by one group, the notice board said, while the other group had not been so lucky, catching only tiger droppings. But Shekhar wasn’t too sure of tiger sightings, and in a late evening discussion with our equally well-informed newfound friends, a pretty grim picture emerged about the lord of the jungle and his future. While 130 is the figure quoted by Corbett forest officials, the real number is expected to be much less – forest guards and guides soberly estimate that Corbett is house to no more than 50 tigers today. The same scenario has replayed itself in other reserves across the country, and the entire tiger population today hovers somewhere between 2000 and 2200. A plunge from the over one lakh tigers that ruled the forests of the sub-continent till the 1920s and 30s.Project Tiger, started in the seventies,succeeded in pulling the big cat back from extinction. Till the nineties, that is. After a
resurgence in poaching last decade, the tiger is back on the brink. Today, with isolated tiger populations in every reserve, issues like in-breeding are complicating matters. and poaching continues as well. However, the biggest threat to the tiger today comes from habitat destruction.

Things might actually get worse from here. Take Corbett, itself. The government of Uttaranchal has told the park’s director that it will slowly choke off all funding to the park. That it will have to depend on tourism for its survival. If that comes through, in the years to come, we’ll probably have more tourists creating a nuisance of themselves, intruding into the privacy of the wild, leaving behind trash and a traumatised animal folk.
One billion people and 2200 tigers, just not fair, I thought, while returning to our room at night. A guttural, earthy roar from somewhere deep inside the forest would have been in perfect agreement, but all around me, there was just a brooding silence.Shekhar woke up early the next day for our elephant safari, as early as the Early Riser Kolakoo, if there indeed is such a bird. He dragged me out of bed and on top of an
elephant which swayed its way out of the complex, along with other elephants and visitors, into the forest. The air was dense with mist, and the dew made the leaves of the trees glisten. There was an all pervasive smell of chlorophyll. The sun started its daily grind, trying to reach the forest floor through the trees, erecting huge, slanting pillars of light all around.

It was a tense couple of moments. The mahouts had spotted fresh pugmarks and tiger droppings and whispers went around about the tiger being somewhere around here, very near. For a long while nothing moved, except for the elephants, who plucked various little branches off trees and stuffed their faces.
The entire congregation waited for the chatter of monkeys, and the shrill cries of avians – the jungle warning broadcast for the king on the move. But, unlike the day before when the surroundings apparently were rent with nervous animal and bird chatter, a deceptive calm floated around the forest.

The mahouts, tired of waiting, guided their pachyderms deeper into the jungle, with its tall trees, dense undergrowth, and a predominance of the colour green. The usual animals were spotted – deer, wild boars and a couple of jackals – but there was no sign of the king, the striped embodiment of primal ferociousness, and the lazy, nose-in-the-air swagger.

After two hours of roaming around the forest, we came back to our guesthouse and prepared to have breakfast. While we were away, peering in the undergrowth, the restaurant at Dhikala had somehow filled up with designer explorers – kitted out with hats, binocs, shades and khakis. The talk was about our (the group that went that day) ill-luck, and about further safaris in the evening. I chewed on my omelette and thought whether I would actually like to see a tiger. The answer was no. I already knew what he looked like. And a tingling, primal and atavistic memory advised me to leave him alone and let him be.


The Corbett National Park, India’s first, was set up in 1936, with guidance from the famous hunter and conservationist (ironic, isn’t it?) Jim Corbett. The park spans around 1,319 sq. km and lies at the foothills of the western Himalayas in the districts of Nainital and Pauri Garhwal at an altitude of 600 to 1,100 metres. The Ramganga river, which runs broadly west by southwest, dominates the park to a large extent. Its catchments divide the land into several ridges and ravines. The Corbett National Park’s topography is diverse – the streams form tiny islands of sheesham trees, the ridges are peopled with sal trees, and there also are large tracts of grassland. Life in the park, according to official figures, is in the form of 50 mammals, about 600 types of birds and around 25 reptiles. The park is closed to the public from June to November 15.

The tiger, irrespective of whether you sight it or not, is what constitutes most of the conversation in Corbett; that’s justifiable since this is also a tiger reserve. But the very experience of being in a deep forest
on elephantback is also as memorable an experience as sighting the king of cats.

Corbett National Park is 300 km from Delhi, 145 km from Lucknow and 51 km from Ramnagar. The route from Delhi spans towns such as Hapur, Moradabad and Ramnagar. Road conditions alternate between very good and downright bad. Some pay-and-use stretches of the NH 24 which leads to Ramnagar are brilliant, while there are areas where the macadam is but an apology. The turn off into Corbett is around 7 km from Moradabad.

While there are a zillion resorts and hotels, all sporting in one way or the other the Corbett or the Tiger tag (for e.g., Corbett Outpost, Tiger Trail), the best thing to do would be to book a room inside the forest itself. Places inside the reserve such as Dhikala, Khinanauli, and Sultan have forest resthouses with decent rooms. Food too is available at these places. To book a room (which costs around Rs 500 per day) at one of these resthouses call up the booking centres at 05947 51489 (Ramnagar) or 0135 2744225 (Dehradun). Elephant rides into the jungle, which take place early in the morning, cost about Rs 600 for a group for four persons. Jeep safaris, at Rs 1200 for either four or five, are more expensive.

Motor Log
Palio 1.2 ELX
Total distance covered: 686 km
KPL: 12.36