Saturday, May 14, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 5 - Jim Corbett National Park


There couldn't be a better way to end the big cat trail. While my photography form didn't hold it's own at Corbett, I can safely say that being in the Terai is the real deal when it comes to Indian forests. There's no other forest in the subcontinent that is home to 227 tigers, several thousand Asiatic elephants, 585 species of birds and more than 30 species of reptiles. In short, an extended stay at Corbett has to be a wildlifer's dream. Corbett does have it's ills, but let me blend them into my experience report.

Corbett is one of the most frustrating parks to book accommodation for. You'll be surprised that I say this, because a web search will yield several hotels around the park. The fact is that if you're serious about wildlife you want to stay away from the noisy boors who'll come to park for a drive because they have nothing better to do. Staying in one of the outside resorts means that you'll enter the forest with these people and each time you see a tiger, there'll be a mini traffic jam with people shouting like it's a fish market. So, most wildlife enthusiasts choose to stay at one of the several forest rest houses in the park - the most popular of these being Dhikala. Dhikala is about 49 kilometres from the Dhangari gate of Corbett Tiger Reserve and is in the thick of this magnificent jungle. Only residents at the rest house can drive through the safari routes here and getting accommodation is so tough that only enthusiasts take the trouble.

To tell you the fact, the reservation system is from the dark ages. You fax them a request months prior to your arrival. You keep calling them every day to follow up on your request. You then send them a demand draft when they confirm your booking (yes, even electronic transfers don't work). All this, and you now need to find a good safari jeep and a good driver. After all that trouble, I still wasn't able to get accommodation at Dhikala for both my nights and I ended up getting a night at Dhikala and a night at Bijrani, a rest house slightly more on the outside of the forest. Getting accommodation at Dhikala is truly an insider's job and in hindsight I recommend you take the services of either of the following folks to take the load off your head:


Dhikala is a great place for spotting wild elephants, hog deer, barking deer and a wide variety of birds in a really dense, forest. Tiger sightings are a matter of chance and more so here, given the dense cover they have. We almost missed the only sighting we had here and the tigress we stopped for was so offended by the fact that we'd blocked her route, that she lunged at us in a mock charge emitting a huge roar. Before we knew it, she'd lunged across the road and neither of the five cameras trained on her had an opportunity to get a photograph. A great sighting - one that left our hearts racing. In our one day at Dhikala, we ran into several elephant herds and saw several exotic birds. Before we'd even sampled the zone properly, we had to head out of the zone and check into our rest house at Bijrani.

The Bijrani rest house is quite old in itself. Established in 1928 as a hunting lodge for the British, it serves as an in forest accommodation for tourists. The zone however, is shared across both day visitors and lodge residents. This tends to make the zone quite noisy, despite the fact that your accommodation can get you several minutes of tranquility when at the rest house. Do remember that you can get out early each morning and stay back late each evening when all other vehicles are likely to be racing against time to reach the gate. Bijrani is also a comparatively drier zone which makes game spotting somewhat easier.

Now did we see a tiger at Bijrani? You bet we did - a young female who chose to sleep in a little cave in almost human fashion. It seemed to make no difference to her as the guides and visitors on the hillock above her made a huge ruckus about her presence. We left her fast asleep, only to come back in the afternoon to watch her lounging in her private pool after the long siesta.


I must put in a word for the elephant safaris at Corbett. In my view there's no better way to experience the forest. Remember that it's not the best perch for photography or to get the best sightings, given the elephant's always moving and that it's a lot slower than a safari vehicle. However, the ability to see the forest from the inside, on an all terrain animal is quite something. No gorge is too deep, no slope too steep. If you had to follow a tiger into the bush, the elephant's your best bet. It's also a great way to experience first hand how man and animal can be such good friends. The trust and understanding between the elephants and their mahouts (handlers) is something to see so you can believe. The mahouts also have really interesting tales to tell so even if you don't get great wildlife sightings, you can have a really entertaining ride through the thickets.

Anyways, Corbett was the last stop on the big cat trail this year. It's been quite amazing - we've spotted 49 big cats; 28 lions, 20 tigers, and 1 leopard. I think it's quite humbling to be stuck one short of a half century; nature's way of showing she's still in control. I am returning to Bangalore enriched by this experience. I've learned so much and I am more appreciative of this country's biodiversity than I was ever before. The big cat trail will be on the road again in the summer of next year and my plan is to visit the following parks:
  • Tadoba
  • Pench
  • Ranthambore
  • Corbett
  • Dudhwa
  • Sunderban
  • Kaziranga
While it's quite impossible to upload all my photographs from the big cat trail, I've put together a small selection of photographs here. As always, my work is under a Creative Commons license.

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