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CORBETT – Call of the wild

Supriya Newar

What draws me to the jungles? I must confess that all my life I have been partial to the hills. No matter how many times I visit the hills, the charm doesn’t ebb. The jungle experience is a lot different. And yet one can draw several parallels. For one, if the ever-standing-still mountains are the hall mark of a hill station the ever-standing thousands-of-trees and all the pervasive stillness is the hall mark of a forest.

My recent trip to Corbett National Park turned out to be most rewarding. Most national parks are slightly tucked away from the storm and thunder of human civilization and Corbett is no different. A couple of hours by train from Old Delhi Station got us to Ramnagar, a small town about 45 minutes away from Corbett. It was past 9:30 in the evening by the time we reached Ramnagar and our jeep cut across villages and grove-upon-grove of litchi and mango trees all in full bloom. The area had been receiving some light showers over the past few days leaving the farms and the trees glistening in the moonlight.

A good night’s rest was a must as our first safari was slated for the next day at the crack of dawn. I was up even before the alarm could ring, thanks to the birds whose body clocks are perpetually well tuned. A cup of green tea and we were off in an open gypsy with our naturalist Rakesh into the Bijrani zone of the park. One of India’s oldest national parks, Jim Corbett National Park lies in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand and is named after Jim Corbett, the hunter turned author and conservationist who took key initiatives towards tiger conservation. In fact, the park was originally called Hailey National Park and was christened in his honor only in 1957. All the naturalists continue to hold him in very high regard. “It is through his work that we understood the importance of our bio-diversity and the need for conservation. I’d go to the extent of saying that our kitchen fires are well lit and we have respectable jobs because of Sir Jim,” confesses one of our naturalists. Even our resort proudly calls itself Jim’s Jungle Retreat.

One of the first things we notice, once in the thick of Bijrani, is the giant termite hills almost everywhere. Rising up to as high as 6-8ft, these termite hills are poof of good bio diversity and health of the sal tree filled forest. “These termites go a long way in eating away dead wood and help in maintaining an ecological balance,” explains our naturalist. How strange, I think! In the cities, we go to great lengths to ensure that our homes are termite free. But in a forest, every single creature, from the tiniest insect to the most feared tiger, are fulfilling their unique roles silently.

As we drive along, we see a lot of deer, mostly the spotted lot that moves in herds. We also spot the sambar and the barking deer, which is a shy creature and is called so because its call resembles a dog’s bark. Suddenly, our driver stops the jeep. Our naturalist has spotted fresh scratch marks. He peers closely and affirms that they are only a few hours old and look like a female cat’s scratch. As we move along, we also see pug marks, some very clear, some spoilt by tyre track marks. Are we in for a sighting?

As we go further, driving very carefully we see two sambar deer standing absolutely still, looking towards the tracks. Our experienced naturalist and driver decide to switch off the engine. The sambar deer haven’t given an alarm call yet, but they look tense, their ears cocked, their tails absolutely erect. All is absolutely still; only my heart seems to be beating inside my ear. “Should we move on,” I whisper. ‘No,’ comes the reply. We must be patient and watch the sambar as they will give us an indication of which way to move. After a few minutes of motionless wait and watch, one of the deer, kicks up his heels and darts off like a bolt! That is a sure indication of her having seen the dreaded tiger. Simultaneously, a couple of barking deer call from below. We lose no time.

Starting our jeep we give the sambar a close chase and negotiate through the forest bends. Within a minute, at some distance, we spot stripes in motion! Now slowing down and turning one more bend, we are right behind the big cat, which is walking majestically, about 20 feet away from us. Unperturbed, she stops to mark her territory and we notice she’s a tigress. After walking casually for a few minutes, she decides to sit, still looking relaxed, her tail covering almost the entire road. It is now that we get her full side profile; her eyes shining; her whiskers stately. Having sat for some time she gets up and all of a sudden, her gaze is keener. She’s eyeing the grassland ahead and is now standing. For a second, she even flexes her muscles, looking very serious, showing off her sinewy built. What a beauty! By this time, several other jeeps have gathered all around but we continue to have the best view, having reached the spot first. After a few minutes she decides to walk into the grassland and within a few seconds completely merges with the grass, her stripes giving her a perfect camouflage.

Still a bit dazed we start our jeep once again to continue with our safari. Rakesh, who is all smiles, quips, “You’ve had such a great sighting on day one. You must have brought good tiger karma!”