Saturday, January 25, 2014

Jim Corbett national park - first among equals



Jim Corbett National Park (http://www.corbettnationalpark.in) was established in 1936 to protect the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and is the oldest protected wildlife sanctuary in India. This was my second trip to Corbett and the biggest improvement since my last trip is the online booking system. These days one can book park entry permits, forest rest houses and safari vehicles on the internet!

The forest rest house at Bijrani was my base camp for four days and had its own charm. Situated deep in the park with no electricity except solar power for a few hours in the evening and very faint, intermittent mobile phone connectivity if you are lucky, you can go off grid in a very real way. Its a good idea to bring spare batteries for your camera and switch off your cell phone because it is not possible to charge any batteries. Bring candles if you plan to stay up after nine in the evening and listen to the wildlife who are especially active at night.

The biggest item on the agenda was off course the tiger. I found it very difficult to not get obsessed about spotting the tiger given the history and ethos of the place and the role it has played in tiger conservation in India.

On the first day it became quite clear that tigers in Corbett were doing well as a number of females were reportedly raising cubs successfully. But that did not in any way mean that spotting them would get any easier. Tigers are solitary animals and are especially secretive when raising cubs. Since they rely on stealth and ambush to catch prey and otherwise stay put, spotting them is very difficult in the thick post-monsoon jungle. The only chance to spot them is when they are moving and it pays to be patient and follow alarm calls of deer, monkeys and other lesser mortals.

For three days we combed every jungle track on a 4x4 vehicle and even went off track on elephant back and on a few occasions got very close, judging from alarm calls and pug marks, but still could not even get a fleeting glimpse of the elusive animal. But we were making progress because we could make out a pattern in the movement of one of the animals, reportedly a female with cubs. Apparently the tigress had her lair on a low lying hill with very thick undergrowth near a dried up river bed. There were tracks on three sides of the hill  and we could hear alarm calls of deer all day as the cubs would play in plain sight of them but we could not spot them because they were out of sight from any of the tracks. 4x4 vehicles are not allowed to go off track and it is prohibited to get off the vehicle except in designated locations. On the second day, some people saw her cross one of the tracks with her cubs and we decided to spend more time trying to locate possible crossing points from pug marks.

On the fourth morning, we were the first vehicle to reach the range and after checking out the usual waterholes, we decided to dig in once again near the hill at a spot from where we could see the river bed as well. There was some tension in the air because we would be checking out of the park after lunch and were wondering whether all our efforts would amount to nothing. A cheetal (spotted deer) was making intermittent calls but otherwise the jungle was quiet and visibility was good on a typically cold January morning.

I was scanning the distant river bed through my 400mm camera lens when I spotted the tigress walking over some large stones on the far side of the river bed and soon I could see all the four cubs appear one by one from the thick grass on the far side and follow her. Our driver knew a spot where he believed the tigress would cross the track to go to her lair and we rushed to intercept her to shoot some pictures from a closer distance. On the way we had to stop to help another vehicle which was having starting trouble and as we were about to reach the intended interception point, we found the tigress walking down the track, hardly fifteen meters from our vehicle with one of her cubs. We could hear the other cubs calling from the undergrowth and as we quietly followed her, we soon realised that we had inadvertently placed ourselves between her and her other cubs. Obviously she was quite used to this because she did not appear to be too worried and after about ten minutes, the whole family disappeared into the undergrowth.

I learnt later that the tigress had made a kill on the grassland near the river and had taken the cubs to feed and was on the way back when we spotted her. She did appear to be a very confident mother and I wish with all my heart that this single mother will be able to raise her family successfully. I had not expected to see a tiger with four cubs when I started on the trip, that too at such a close distance. I can barely comprehend how precious this family is to tiger conservation in India. The magic of the tiger lives on in Jim Corbett National Park.

I would like to add a few notes on how to prepare for a jungle safari. The 4x4 vehicles have open tops and therefore, it is a good idea to carry a weather proof jacket in case of rain and the wind chill in the early morning can make one feel quite cold. Temperatures can rise considerably as the day progresses and it is a good idea to dress in multiple layers so that you can take off a layer if you feel warm. Felt is a good material for your middle layer because it is lighter than wool for the same insulation. It is a good idea to dress in colours that can blend into the jungle background because some animals are quite shy and can be easily spooked. It is a good idea to bring a good pair of binoculars and you may click this link for advice on how to choose one.  For photographers, a camera with a zoom lens is essential. I was carrying a DSLR with a 70-200 mm zoom lens with a 2x extender, which essentially converted it into a 140-400 mm lens. Anything longer than that would be practically unusable in a moving vehicle though I did spot one gentleman with what looked like a 500mm lens mounted on a tri-pod. For city dwellers who are not used to spending a lot of time outdoors, adequate sunscreen protection is highly recommended. For ladies who do not want to have their hair messed up in the wind, a large silk scarf is quite handy.

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