Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

In Tiger Haven

Navtej Sarna

FROM Ramnagar the road to Ranikhet rises gently over the slope. The air is thick with the scents and silences of the forest. A few kilometers take the tourist to Dhangarhi, the entrance to Corbett National Park. From here he moves into the park, as a signboard informs him, at “his own risk”. The guide-map at the gate shows that the 520 square km of the park stretch across the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal and is surrounded by eight former shooting blocks out of which sanctuaries have been carved out.

Thirty-one kms separate Dhangarhi from Dhikala - the tourist settlement in the park. The tourist, his imagination fired by accounts from the “Man-eaters of Kumaon”, scans the growth for a glimpse of the striped symmetry. An occasional wild boar grunts its way across the road. An antelope crashes into the forest. Suddenly, a leopard rushes to the road’s edge and crouches, keenly watching the bus go by.

Dusk is enveloping the pista green cabins at Dhikala as the tourist settles down for his first night in Corbett country. The chowkidar talks reverently of the Corbett Sahib “who could call any animal he wanted”.

Fittingly, Corbett’s spirit watches over this tiger reserve. The man who hunted dangerous man-eaters in these hills was also acutely aware of the dwindling numbers of India’s fauna. Though better known as the scourge of the man-eaters, Jim Corbett was also a pioneer conservationist and editor of a short lived journal titled “Indian Wildlife”.

He was partly responsible for the establishment of this park in the mid-thirties. Named after Hailey, the Governor, it covered about 300 sq. km. With the coming of Independence, its name was changed to Ramganga National Park and it was in 1957 that the park acquired its present name.

The location of the Park is an important factor. Mr. C.B. Singh, Field Director of project Tiger, said that the area was even known as another “Kalapani” because of its secluded nature. Rich in wildlife it formed the scene of many an imperial shikar. The same abundance which prompted a visitor to write that “tigers moved like rabbits.”

But those days have vanished along with the era they belonged to. The tiger became the symbol of the vanishing wildlife. Elevated to the status of the National Animal, he had to be protected and saved. That was the avowed objective of the Project Tiger which covered eight areas and was launched on a countrywide footing. Protection was to be brought about by eliminating any sort of interference with nature. Forestry and grazing were stopped, the former at a considerable but inevitable loss of revenue.

The project appears to have succeeded- at least as far as the Corbett National park is concerned. In 1972, this park housed 44 of India’s 1827 tigers. In 1976 the census revealed pugmarks of 55 tigers. This figure increased to 72 in 1977 and last year it had risen to 83. According to Mr. C.B. Singh, this is nearly the maximum possible population in the available space. Recently, in fact, there has been evidence of migration. If one works it out, the density of the tiger population is indeed impressive. Over the 520 sq. km., 40 of which are under water, it amounts to a tiger for every six of the highest densities in the world.

Along with the tiger, the other inhabitants of the jungle have also prospered. There are over 40 leopards in the park. The Sambar and the Cheetal have also increased as evidenced by the larger groups now visible. However, the hyena - an important scavenger in the jungle, is not around. Even the fierce wild dog which used to roam the area in packs has vanished. Such a pack has the capacity to worry a tiger to death.

Much has been said and many questions asked about poaching in these parts. The Park authorities maintain that the incidence of poaching within the Park is zero. However, there is evidence of organised poaching outside the Park. Traps and sometimes-even explosives are used in the predatory hunt for animal skin. The thick winter coat of the tiger is highly valued in the fur market. Traditionally, in countries like China, it was believed that the bones, blood, flesh and heart have rare therapeutic values. The tiger’s heart is supposed to impart to the consumer the courage and strength of the tiger itself. Another problem faced by the Park authorities is indiscriminate fishing near the Kalagar Irrigation complex.

But perhaps what needs to be stressed most is the fact that the park is not a tourist spot. The tourism aspect remains incidental to the main aim of conservation of wildlife. Whatever tourist facilities exist are not for earning revenue but for creating awareness and strengthening the appeal of the conservationists. As things stand, there is just about sufficient accommodation at Dhikala. It comprises of a few cabins, some hutments and six cottage tents. The rates vary from Rs. 60 per day in a cabin to Rs. 7.50 for a tent.

Six or seven elephants are housed here to give the tourists a feel of the jungle from the relative safety of their broad backs. A tiger is not too rare a sight. Given some luck and patience, he may be spotted any day. In fact, on the forested ridge near Dhikala there are five or six tigers and two leopards. Their roars shatter the silence of the night sending the agile cheetal into instant flight. And in the background the sound of the fast flowing Ramganga completes the perfect picture.