“The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
I had read these lines as a young boy in a faded book, passed down generations of uncles and cousins. I remembered these lines on my first ever visit the Jim Corbett National Park, nearly two decades ago. A park named after the man who wrote these lines. His writings have had a large influence on my understanding of our natural world. Having read them several times over the course of my years, they have brought new insight each time.
It did not take long for me to fall in love with the park’s stunning natural beauty, its enchanting wildlife and the indescribable feeling of joy that comes with being in the great outdoors. Every corner, every crossroads, every tree or brook reminds you of a passage or two from Corbett’s books. It is as if Carpet (as he was affectionately called by locals) saheb’s spirit, still walks through these paths.
Corbett called the tiger ‘a large hearted gentleman’. But the tigers of his neck of the woods had not yet had the heart to show themselves to me, despite having made several pilgrimages over the years. Every one who heard my disappointment had the same answer – ‘because you haven’t been to Dhikala yet’. Among the country’s wildlife enthusiast community, Dhikala is considered somewhat the Holy Grail. It was time to fix that error in my ways.
The morning mist hung like a blanket over the grasslands, the dew shining like diamonds in the morning sun. A chill breeze woke up every pore in the body, as the Gypsy set off from the Dhikala Forest Rest House. Places like Sambhar Road, Paar, Thandi Sadak, Kamar Patta Road, Mota Saal – names I heard in dozens of stories narrated over the years, were now unfolding before my eyes. The beauty of Corbett was being laid bare, and I was drinking all of it in, while getting to know the lay of the land. Tigers are creatures of habit – so to take luck out of the equation, it is important to understand the territory in which they operate, the paths they take, the location of water bodies and where prey is likely to be found. Only then can you track a tiger, and appreciate it fully.
Our primary search was concentrated around Sambhar Road, the Ramganga river and the far side known as ‘Paar’ (across). For this was the territory of Dhikala’s ‘queen’ – the Paarwali tigress or Paro. She had been living in this area for many years. She was bringing up a litter of 3 tigresses, now almost fully grown. Being along the river and the edge of the forest, we got some great opportunities to photograph raptors perched high, soaking in the morning sun and scanning for prey. Within a 500m stretch, we were able to spot among others, the tiniest but fiercest of birds of prey – the Collared Falconet. Then there were the Changeable Hawk Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle and the majestic Pallas’s Fish Eagle.
We had been tracking the pugmarks of a female tigress. It seemed that she had spent many hours, spray marking territory on the high banks above Sambhar Road, and had been spotted briefly by another car. Anticipating that she might want to cross the river, we waited. Pretty soon, we were rewarded with the glorious sight of one of Paro’s daughters getting into the water, gently disturbing the mist against the morning sun. The Corbett jinx had been broken.
Over the course of the next few safaris, Paro’s three daughters put up quite the show. On the cusp of adulthood, all three were trying to establish their own territory in the area they grew up in. Within the familiar confines of their childhood home – they were seen patrolling, marking territory, hunting or doing what tigers are most wont to do – sleeping. And in the process, they had made up for all the disappointments of a eighteen years. Dhikala had lived up to its name.
While the drama played out between the daughters, their mother was quietly going about her business. So quietly in fact, that one afternoon she almost passed unnoticed through a throng of safari vehicles, all focused on the antics of her daughter across the river. Proof enough that when a tiger wants to pass unseen, it can. Almost.
However, the true essence of the park lies far beyond its famed tigers. Look a little more closely, and there is a fascinating ecosystem at work. The crystal clear waters of the Ramganga are also home to a large number of fish. And where there are fish, there will be fish-eaters. Watching a lodge of Smooth Coated Otters frolic in the water or play along the banks, can bring a smile to anyone’s face. However, theirs is a vulnerable species, with their habitats increasingly under threat due to human activity.
To get to ‘Paar’ one needs to cross a makeshift wooden bridge, built by the forest department after each monsoon. This year, we were the lucky ones to inaugurate it. And the reward was the magnificent sight of this bull tusker. Hemu – our guide mentioned that bull was an old resident of these parts, and had lost one of his gigantic tusks a few years ago. As our cameras clicked, he approached our vehicle – to the extent that even wide angle lenses were useless. Nervous from inside, yet excited beyond – we had a little staring match with the old bull, before he decided we were not worth his time and he sauntered off. It was a quite a moment indeed.
In addition to Paarwali’s family – another tiger family was drawing everyone’s attention. Known as the Grassland Female, this tigress was bringing up 3 cubs of her own. These cubs however, were only 5-6 months old and naturally wary of human contact. We tracked them down to the edge of the Ramganga reservoir. Their mother had hidden them in the tall grass, while being away for a hunt. Having put ample distance between the vehicles and water’s edge, we settled down for the waiting game. One cub was especially bold and curious. It would bob his head out from the grass in our direction from time to time, and dark back in. Over an hour’s wait was rewarded with a few precious seconds of footage, but that is nature for you.
I have met many a person with little interest in tigers, leopards or elephants. Yet they make a beeline for Corbett National Park at the slightest pretext. For birders, this place is heaven. The entire forest is full of birdsong. Every other tree, branch or rock is a perch. Winter is even better, when thousands of migratory birds make their way here, from across the Himalayas. During our visit we were able to document at least 50 different species, including the star attraction (at least for me) from ‘Paar’ – the Spot Bellied Eagle Owl.
We spent 3 nights in Dhikala. Each moment, more memorable than the previous. While leaving you with my favourite image from the trip, some more of Corbett’s lines come to mind.
““The time I spent in the jungles held unalloyed happiness for me, and that happiness I would now gladly share. My happiness, I believe, resulted from the fact that all wildlife is happy in its natural surroundings.”