Tiger population spikes in the verdant forest cover of Corbett National Park

Are there really 214 tigers in Corbett? The elaborate tiger census done in 2010 by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority has established that India's oldest park, established in 1911, is also the tigers' biggest haven. The current tiger census, which is in its third phase, also shows a good population of tigers. But it is difficult to spot tigers in the 1400 sq km of the well-forested tiger terrain. Unlike in Ranthambhore, Rajasthan, where most people come back elated after seeing the magnificent king of the jungles or a whole family of the big cats, tiger sighting is so rare in Corbett that people were beginning to question their existence.

However, controlled tourism and better management shows that not only do large numbers of the striped cat reside in Corbett but with some luck, they can be spotted as well. Seven different tigers have been spotted on a single day by tourists this season. Priyanka Gandhi was one of those lucky persons who saw seven tigers on a visit. This journalist, too, has been to Corbett several times but it was the first time that I had a full 10 to 15 minutes view of a tiger at a water hole at Bhichubodi, very close to the Dikhala forest guest house, in the third week of May.

We were on elephant back and as it was 6.30 p.m. We were on our way back to the forest lodge when suddenly, a sambar's call was heard and safari jeeps which could not penetrate the jungles like the elephants, advised that we get into the thickets and catch the tiger while they waited on the road. Patience is of utmost importance to sight a tiger. But we had barely waited five to six minutes at a clearing adjoining a water hole, when we saw the magnificent creature walked in to our vision. It looked as though it had just had a good meal. It was a full grown male tiger of about two to three years, the mahout said. The elephants shuffled their feet in anticipation and two of them lifted their trunks as if in obeisance to the king — then low and behold it walked up to the water hole, drank some water and stretched out beside the water, its long tail stretched behind it like a snake. Then the tiger immersed itself in the water to cool off, looked in our direction — its ears perked up and finally got up and left the way it had come to the water hole.

At the reception centre at Dikhala forest lodge, people recorded their tiger sightings on a black board. The day we arrived, there were four entries. The next day we added our entry and felt like heroes.

Though some 850 sq km of unspolied forest form the core zone of the Corbett tiger reserve, tourists are allowed entry into just five zones. This seemed a kind of restriction since I remember driving all over the protected area during my earlier trips. Field director Ranjan Mishra, who sits at Ramnagar, however, seemed a harassed man with the phone ringing constantly with tourists seeking entry into the protected area. Approximately 2.20 lakh people visit Corbett in the seven months it is open to tourists, and another lakh or so waiting to get in.

Only registered safari jeeps are allowed inside the park. At Dhangade gate, where entry permits are checked by the forest officials, visitors are told not to get off their vehicles or talk while on a safari. Animals, you are told, have the right of way in the jungles, a code diligently followed. Each vehicle is given a gunny bag for litter on entry. It was wonderful to see the pristine purity of the park — not a plastic bag or bottle.

Mr. Mishra needs to keep the habitat in good health for the tigers. The lantana weeds have to be regularly cleared so that the king has better feeding facilities. Man-animal conflict is still a problem. Though there are no more villages inside Corbett, the tiger does stray outside the park at times and lifts cattle. This could lead to retaliatory killing of tigers by villagers through poisoning. The compensation for a cattle killed by the tiger is just Rs. 5000 whereas the market price is Rs. 30,000. For a human death, the compensation is just Rs. one lakh. In 2010, six people were killed by a man-eater and it was finally shot down. Park officials have been asking for realistic compensations if the tiger is to be saved.

Shortage of forest guards has plagued almost all national parks and tiger reserves for several years. In Corbett, there are 106 vacancies and Mr. Mishra is hoping to recruit them in the next three to four months. The Special Forest Protection Force has been constituted three months ago with 67 forest guards, 18 foresters and 27 Gujjars (local lads of 18 to 20 years who could provide information on poaching and poachers). They are being hired on a contract basis but will have the same pay and perks as the commissioned forest staff. Hiring Gujjars is one way of involving local community in forest protection work. Satellite phones have been given to forest guards inside the park's core area.

Corbett has a good prey base with hordes of spotted deer, sambar, darking deer and hog deer. There are 700 to 800 wild elephants at Corbett and an elephant census is currently on. Though many people come to Corbett for tigers and elephants, the Park is a bird watcher's delight with 585 bird species accounting for 50 per cent of India's bird species and 36 species of butterflies. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is doing research in Corbett, says it has the best breeding ground for gharials (101). There are some 76 crocodiles as well.

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