Based at Ramnagar, 250km northeast of Delhi and 63km southwest of Nainital, Corbett Tiger Reserve is one of India’s premier wildlife reserves. Established in 1936 by Jim Corbett (among others) as the Hailey National Park, India’s first, and later renamed in his honour, it is one of Himalayan India’s last expanses of wilderness. Almost the entire 1288-square-kilometre park, spread over the foothills of Kumaon, is sheltered by a buffer zone of mixed deciduous and giant sal forests, which provide impenetrable cover for wildlife. Most of the core area of 520 square kilometres at its heart remains out of bounds, and safaris on foot are only permissible in the fringe forests.
Corbett is most famous for its big cats, and in particular the tiger – this was the first designated Project Tiger Reserve, in 1973 – but its 110 or so tigers are extremely elusive. Sightings are very far from guaranteed, and should be regarded as an unlikely bonus. Nonetheless, although there have been problems elsewhere with the project, and with the very survival of the tiger in India in serious jeopardy, Corbett does at least seem to be prioritizing the needs of tigers over those of other wildlife and of tourists. Still, poaching is not unheard of, though it’s Corbett’s elephants that face the most serious threat. The best place to see them is around the picturesque Dhikala camp near the reservoir; spring is the best time, when the water level drops and the animals have more space to roam. The reservoir also shelters populations of gharial, a long-snouted, fish-eating crocodile, and maggar, a large marsh crocodile, as well as other reptiles. Jackal are common, and wild boar often run through the camps in the evenings. The grasslands around Dhikala are home to deer species such as the spotted chital, hog and barking deer and the larger sambar, while rhesus and common langur, the two main classes of Indian monkey, are both abundant, and happy to provide in-camp entertainment. Bird life ranges from water birds such as the pied kingfisher to birds of prey, including the crested serpent eagle, Pallas’s fishing eagle and Himalayan greyheaded fishing eagle.
The closest of the various gates into the park, 1km from central Ramnagar, is Amdanda on the road to Bijrani camp, 11km away, a base for day-trips. Dhangarhi Gate, 18km along the highway north to Ranikhet, provides access to the northern and northwestern portions of the park along the Ramganga river valley, and to the main camp of Dhikala.
Jim Corbett (1875–1955)
Jim Corbett (1875–1955)
Hunter of man-eating tigers, photographer, conservationist and author, Jim Corbett was born in Nainital of English and Irish parentage. A childhood spent around the Corbett winter home of Kaladhungi (halfway between Nainital and Ramnagar) brought young Jim into close communion with nature and to an instinctive understanding of jungle ways. After working on the railways, he joined the Indian army in 1917 at the age of forty, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and seeing action in Flanders at the head of the 70th Kumaon Company.
Known locally as “Carpet Sahib”, a mispronunciation of his name, Jim Corbett was called upon time and time again to rid the hills of Kumaon of man-eating tigers and leopards. Normally shy of human contact, such animals become man-eaters when infirmity brought upon by old age or wounds renders them unable to hunt their usual prey. Many of those killed by Corbett were found to have suppurating wounds caused by porcupine quills embedded deep in their paws; tigers always seem to fall for the porcupine’s simple defensive trick of walking backwards in line with its lethal quills.
One of Corbett’s most memorable exploits was the killing of the Champawat tiger, which was responsible for a documented 436 human deaths, and was bold enough to steal its victims from the midst of human habitation. By the mid-1930s, though, Corbett had become dismayed with the increasing number of hunters in the Himalayas and the resultant decline in wildlife, and diverted his energies into conservation, swapping his gun for a movie camera and spending months capturing tigers on film. His adventures are described in books such as My India, Jungle Lore and Man-Eaters of Kumaon; Martin Booth’s Carpet Sahib is an excellent biography of a remarkable man. Unhappy in post-Independence India, Jim Corbett retired to East Africa, where he continued his conservation efforts until his death at the age of eighty.