Corbett National Park: The Early Days

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 2 No. 4, April 1982
By Brijendra Singh
An otter making a meal of a fish caught in the fast-flowing Ramganga river.Crabs, frogs, rodents and, occasionally, waterfowl may form part of the diet of this aquatic mammal.
Photo: Helmut Denzau/Gertrud Neumann.

It was the spring of 1958 and during our four and a half day mid-term break we were going to Corbett Park. The rest of the boys had already left on their various expeditions after lunch, on the day school closed, but we were to leave early the next morning with our tutor. Though we fretted about the half-day we had lost out on, nothing would change the old Englishman's mind - “We must reach the park by day, there are elephants on the way," he insisted.

The forest road from Dehradun to Kalagarh took us through rich sal and rohini forest. Excellent elephant habitat. Though the five of us had our eyes peeled, we saw no sign of the great beasts. What a pity. It would have been fun to watch our tutor lose his proverbial cool, which might even have made up for the lost half day!

We halted at Boxar, where the rushing waters of the Ramganga slowed down to fill limpid pools abounding in mahseer. Our tutor assembled his fishing tackle. We had all heard of Englishmen being touched by the noon-day sun, but here, we thought, was a living example. One normally fishes with heavy tackle, plug or spoon for mahseer, but this man was using his light trout rod and flies. “We don't want to bomb the waters, do we boys? Must give the fish a sporting chance." To our utter amazement, he did indeed land a few mahseer, some of which were kept for supper; the smaller ones we tossed back into the river. This was my first introduction to mahseer fishing. A great sport!

It was here at Boxar that I saw my first gharials. There were two of them basking in the sun on the banks of the Ramganga and they must have been well over 12 feet long. Gharials are long-snouted, fresh-water, fish-eating crocodiles, so named, because of the prominent bulge at the end of the males snout resembling a ghara or pot. These two enormous reptiles seemed well-fed and in no mood to budge. We left them undisturbed.

The road from Boxar wound its way, for some distance, through thick jungle and along it we saw increasing signs of elephants - fresh dung on the road, a rohini tree knocked down and a few chewed branches with the bark stripped off. And then, as we came around a bend, we saw our first herd of elephants crossing the road. Agog with both excitement and fright, we were still deprived of the pleasure of seeing the Englishman panic. He calmly reversed the jeep and waited patiently till the last member of the herd, the masterbull, a magnificent tusker, had crossed the road. “ELEPHANTS HAVE RIGHT OF WAY," he exclaimed.

Another turn in the road and suddenly we were driving in open grassland, we were at the Dhikala Chaur. (Chaur, in fact, means a blank or open space). The anxiety we had felt earlier left us and our spirits soared as we drove through teeming herds of chital and wild boar to the rest house. Built on colonial lines, the structure overlooked the Ramganga river which was dotted with small islands, clad in the soothing green of sheeshum in new leaf.

This is how Jim Corbett must have seen it when he was hunting man-eaters, fishing and later, just photographing in the area. It was here that his wonderfully related experiences first came alive to me. Kanda, where he shot a dreaded man-eater and had an exciting encounter with a Hamadryad or king cobra was visible from the old forest rest house and somewhere here, he must have pitched his tent. (He preferred a tent ever since an official had made him vacate a rest house room in the dead of night.) We had an eventful trip. Bundled onto elephant back and deposited atop a rickety machan, we even got to see a tiger as he passed an open fire line in front of us on a beat. There was so much to fill our lives. So much to learn. All too soon however, our four days were over and we were back in school, narrating exciting stories about tigers and elephants and dreaming of when we would return - but that was years ago.

A setting sun sets the Ramganga aflame. Pollution threatens almost every major river in India and such pristine sights are becoming increasingly rare.

Photo: Nirmal Ghosh.

The forests we visited as children had been protected for around a hundred years. Earlier, before the British took over, in 1820, the chaurs around Boxar and Dhikala were used for cultivation. However, the first 38 years of British ‘management were to prove disastrous. Trees were felled mercilessly for timber and the forest steadily deteriorated. In 1858, one Major Ramsay took the first real systematic forest conservancy steps which, to a great extent, restored the forests' former health. Cultivation was stopped, cattle stations were removed, a regular firefighting force was appointed and, most important, the removal of timber without a license was prohibited. In 1907, the possibility of creating game sanctuaries in the area was first mooted, but was rejected outright. The matter was brought up once again by a forest officer, called E.R. Stevens, in 1916 and though his successor, E.A. Smythies, also supported the idea, the whole proposal was shot down by the Commissioner. Later, when Smythies was the conservator of forests he consulted Major Jim Corbett regarding the possible boundaries for a proposed park. Fortunately, their recommendations met with the approval of the Governor, of the then United Provinces, Sir Malcolm Hailey, and in 1935 the U.P. National Parks' Act was passed. India's first National Park was named `The Hailey National Park', the very same year.

After Independence, the park was renamed ‘The Ramganga National Park but when Jim Corbett died in 1957, the park became known as ‘The Corbett National Park in memory of the legendary author-hunter who did so much for conservation in his day.

On April 1, 1973, Project Tiger was launched at Corbett National Park by Dr. Karan Singh and within a year the stringent protective measures stipulated by the project began to be enforced and conservation efforts received a further shot in the arm.

Today, after countless trips to Corbett Park - I go there almost every month - my attachment to the place and its wildlife grows stronger. Each trip provides a different experience and always adds new light to my quest for a greater understanding of Nature. With better understanding, the fear I once had of elephants has gone, but the fascination and excitement remain. Yet, when I reminisce, I cannot but help the nostalgia which creeps in when I think that gone with the eccentric Englishman who introduced me to the park, are so many other good things. The thick forest through which the road ran from Chilla (on the banks of the Ganga, opposite Hardwar) to Kalagarh. Gone too is the beautiful pool at Boxar, the rest house and some of the best tiger habitat of the park - Sherbojhi (where I saw my first tiger) and Ringora. It was heartbreaking to see the lush forest in this area being clear felled. The area resounded with the deafening crash of great trees, the endless chopping and sawing and the non-stop stream of contractors, labourers and lorries. The disturbance -- a traumatic nightmare. It was to cater to the needs of that monster, the relentless devourer of our natural resources -- the population, that a multi-purpose hydel dam had been planned at Kalagarh. The very heart of the park, the chaur, the sheeshum covered riverine islands, the low-lying area of the Patlidun, all excellent habitat for the thousands of deer, wild boar, elephants, tigers and other wildlife -- was to be the reservoir for this infamous dam. The whole area, comprising about 45 square kilometres would soon be inundated. Work on the dam had begun years ago and though awareness of our vanishing habitat had hit us in recent years, too much money had already been spent on the project. Despite the few half-hearted attempts to oppose the construction, it was too late to stop the dam. In 1974, when the waters began filling the reservoir for the first time, many changes took place. Some of the most noticeable to me, were the great dispersal of chital, hog-deer and wild boar to higher ground. Most of the tigers followed the prey species to these areas, while some of them moved to the buffer zones, in search of easier prey -- village cattle.  Unfortunately, many chital died that year, the cause I believe may have been a liver fluke introduced by snails into the lake waters which the animals were forced to drink. Or perhaps, it was the freezing, humid wind from the lake that swept the area in winter. Fortunately, the chital developed sufficient resistance and strength to withstand the frost the next winter for there were no large-scale deaths reported.

Yes, tigers do swim. This photograph was taken by the author from a motorised launch in the heart of the park.
Photo: Brijendra Singh.

In 1976, it was the elephants that suffered the most. The water of the reservoir had risen further and had cut off the crossing points on their trek-routes. The animals were now confused, extremely nervous and consequently prone to charge or stampede at the least disturbance. I remember picking up a little calf which had been trampled by the adults when a bus carrying a group of noisy tourists caused the herd to stampede. The area opposite Dhikala, the sheeshum islands, and the Patlidun drowned in 1977-78 and the soothing green of vegetation gave way to the cold, icy blue of water.

Though a large and valuable slice from Corbett Parks 521 sq. km. has gone, in the sense that the habitat, has shrunk for the animals, the lake has now begun to add some charm to the forest. Numerous water birds patronise the lake and early in the morning one can hear the deafening sound of thunder as countless pintails rise. Gulls can be seen sailing and terns flitting above the waters. Fish jump, perhaps to escape from larger predators. The mugger, or marsh crocodile, population has risen and if one approaches these large reptiles too close, they slip into the water, staring at you with cold unblinking eyes, as if to accuse you of depriving them of the sun.

Today it seems that the area where wildlife has had to adjust to new conditions, is settling down well. This is evident from the animals re-established routine and behaviour patterns, leading to the breeding and perpetuation of the species. The rest of the park, given suitable protection from fire, and other retarding causes will do extremely well. The area is very rich and houses an abundance of flora and fauna. The hill-slopes are covered by some of the best sal forests and the configuration of the ground provides varied terrain. A series of somewhat parallel ridges running from the Northwest to the Southeast are frequented by tigers who are also able to find shelter to drop their litters in the ravines formed by the Ramganga and its main tributaries. Minor streams running in all directions dissect the ground and for much of the year provide an ample supply of water while some of the nullahs are covered with a coat of thick evergreen shrubs and bamboo breaks.

The diversity of habitat and food supply has resulted in a large faunal variety. The rivers and lakes are well stocked, mahseer being the main river fish. In addition to aquatic reptiles such as muggers and gharials, terrestrial varieties such as the king cobra, common krait, common cobra, Russels viper and python can be seen. The park also houses the large monitor lizard Veranus monitor. 585 species of birds have been described out of the resident and migratory avifauna. The more common ones are the peacock, jungle fowl, partridge, kaleej, jungle crow, vulture, oriole, kingfisher, drongo, woodpecker and dove. Waterfowl, of course, abound in the lake. Among the primates, the langur and rhesus are represented and are commonly seen in association with the herbivores such as chital, sambar, hog-deer and barking deer. The scruffy wild boar provides a major share of the tigers' diet and upon the steeper slopes, goral may be seen grazing. Other than the tiger, the major predator in the park is the leopard, while smaller carnivores such as the leopard cat, jungle cat and jackal are also present. Sloth bears, those lumbering omnivores, frequent many parts of the forest and hills. Hares and porcupines are also seen. The elephants, of course, are a star attraction at Corbett. Though they have been adversely affected by the creation of the reservoir, they are beginning to settle down in alternate forested tracts such as Jamnagwar, Malani and Bijrani, where outside disturbance has been minimised since forestry operations have been discontinued, after the commencement of Project Tiger.

A slow mist rises over a lake, created by the construction of a dam across the Ramganga river. The adverse ecological effects of the dam are presently under study by the park authorities.
Photo: Helmut Denzau/Gertrud Neumann.

Any way you look at it, the management of Corbett Park has been one of India's major wildlife successes. However, as wildlife populations increase there is a noticeable spillover into the buffer zones and even out of the park boundary into the shooting blocks just outside Corbett.  The writing is on the wall. In future years, wildlife will only be able to survive in National Parks and Sanctuaries. Today we could conceivably save the situation by expanding the park; tomorrow it will be too late as the unprotected forests will have vanished.

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