Based at Ramnagar 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. 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 famous for its big cats, in particular, the tiger – it was the first designated Project Tiger Reserve in 1973 – but its 215 or so tigers are elusive, and sightings are far from guaranteed. Nonetheless, the project has proven more successful in Uttarakhand (both in Corbett and the nearby Rajaji National Park) than in any of its other 48 reserves. While the very survival of the tiger in India remains in serious jeopardy, Corbett does seem to be prioritizing the needs of tigers over those of other wildlife and of tourists. Incidents of poaching, however, are not unheard of, though of late it’s Corbett’s leopards that have faced the most serious threat.
The reservoir within the park also shelters populations of gharial, a long-snouted, fish-eating crocodile, and maggar, a large marsh mugger 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. Corbett also has spectacular birdlife, with nearly five hundred resident and migratory species, including around fifty species of raptors or birds of prey, among them the crested serpent eagle and the Himalayan grey-headed fishing eagle. Late spring (April–June) is the best time to see wildlife, when low water levels force animals into the open. The park is divided into six “eco-tourism zones” open for day-visits, of which by far the best for sighting big game is picturesque Dhikala, deep into the park near the reservoir and where visitors can stay overnight. Bijrani, Sonanandi, Jhirna, Durgadevi and Dhela are the other five zones, the last opened to tourism only in 2014.