Corbett Reserve

In Jim Corbett landscape

Print edition : April 18, 2014

A robust tiger, a camera-trap image. Pressures from Kotdwar town (in the background) are a threat to the Rajaji National Park-Corbett Tiger Reserve corridor. Photo: Bivash Pandav

Tiger pug marks on a riverbed in the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. Photo: Imam Hussein

A tusker standing its ground. Photo: Bivash Pandav

The hogdeer, an endangered species, in the tiger reserve. Photo: Bivash Pandav

Control of the jackal population may revive the hog deer population. Photo: Bivash Pandav

Woodlands with meadow habitats can ensure the Nilgai's presence along the reserve's southern boundary. Photo: Bivash Pandav

Champa, a Gujjar anti-poaching watcher, who survived a tiger attack. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Jhirna forest rest house, built in 1908. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

'Urena lobata' in the tiger reserve. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

'Ipomoea nil' in September. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

'Mimosa himalayana' in September. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The tiger reserve is a stronghold of the golden mahseer. Photo: Misty Dillon

The picturesque Ramganga reservoir. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A walk through the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, taking in its many wildlife delights.

ABUNDANT tiger and elephant signs along the Paterpani sot (spring, stream) indicated that this sot in the heart of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand was the favoured haunt of tigers and elephants in the reserve. Their tracks overlapped on the sandy and muddy stream bed, and a strong smell of tiger spray and elephant dung and urine permeated the air. Over the tracks of these two charismatic animals—one the national animal and the other the national heritage animal—there were signs of other animals too, such as the chital and the sambar. The overall ambience reminded us that the Corbett Tiger Reserve was a place where one has to walk with immense respect for the elephant, the tiger and the king cobra (later we came across the body of a three-metre-long king cobra in a pool on a different riverbed).

We were accompanying 20 officer trainees of the 10-month diploma course of the Wildlife Institute of India on their orientation tour to the reserve. It was late September 2013 and the torrential rains that had brought untold misery to the people of Uttarakhand had stopped, and yet the water in the stream was turbid.

The seven-kilometre walk along the stream to the Paterpani forest rest house, built in the early part of the 20th century, and the nine-kilometre return walk along the road through a forest with a dense tiger population to the saddle dam of the picturesque Ramganga reservoir formed one of the highlights of the tour. Sightings in the pools of the stream of the golden mahseer (one of the most beautiful wildlife species of India) that came up from the reservoir to spawn, the goral (a mountain goat) on the steep hill slopes, and birds such as the Himalayan pied kingfisher and white-crested laughing thrushes (whose cackling often coincided with someone slipping and falling down on the stream floor) and frequent encounters with oriental pied hornbills were the high points of the walk.

The first time one of us (Johnsingh) wanted to take the trainees on this walk nearly 15 years ago, accompanied by two armed guards, the reserve director, aware of the frequent use of the stream by the tiger, the elephant and the sloth bear, gave us permission but with a warning: “You are doing the walk at your own risk.” The faculty during the September 2013 trip included, besides Bivash Pandav (a third batch MSc Wildlife Science student of the institute), who has walked all over the Corbett landscape in the past 10 years, Suresh Kumar (fifth batch), who is good at bird identification; Johnson, an expert on fish; and Abhijit, who has a great passion for amphibians and reptiles. There were 14 trainees from India, five from Bangladesh and one from Vietnam.

We had two guards, one carrying a double-barrelled shotgun and the other a rifle. If required, the gun, which could spray pellets, could be used to scare away elephants, while the rifle would be effective against poachers. Guards of the Corbett Tiger Reserve would impress anyone with their dedication, fitness, knowledge of the area and animals, the way they carry their weapons (always pointing towards either the sky or the ground, never at people), and their courage in times of need. Our first surprise, as soon as we started walking along the stream, was the near absence of the mahseer, weighing upto 3 kg, which used to be a common sight in the pools. We had come prepared with atta (wheat flour) balls to attract and view the fish, but none turned up when we threw the balls into the water. It is reported that the golden mahseer tends to retreat to the reservoir/main river after spawning in the streams, and as Uttarakhand had received heavy rains in early June, they had possibly completed spawning and gone back to the reservoir.

As we walked, we soon came across a large pool where some years ago we had spotted the bones of a nearly four-year-old elephant calf which had been killed and eaten by four tigers. The staff on patrol duty had seen the tigers feeding on the kill.

Tigers killing elephant calves is not a rare occurrence, and one factor that could be controlling the population of the around 800 elephants of the Corbett landscape is predation on calves by tigers. Angered tigers are capable of killing even a bull elephant, as epitomised by E.A. Smythies in Journal of Bombay Natural History Society (Volume 41: 654-656). This fight, between a tusker and two tigers, took place on the right bank of the Sharada river in September 1939, and eventually the bull, which carried tusks weighing close to 60 kg, was killed. Now, the burgeoning Tanakpur town has encircled the location where the fight occurred. As we walked along the stream, a goral ran across, a barking deer gave an alarm and, as usual, we found the last bit of the walk (about 500 m) to reach the rest house through the elephant grass which had grown rank during the rains a bit taxing as there was no clear path.

The rest house overlooks a valley where the sot begins. The valley is in a typical bhabar area. Whatever water is received, either as rain or as floodwater, rapidly percolates, leaving the valley dry even in early winter. So the grass in the valley is dominated by species such as Imperata cylindrica, Saccharum spontaneum and Saccharum munja,which are characteristic of the flat areas of the bhabar habitat. Anyone sitting in the veranda of the rest house and observing the riverbed in the valley in the morning and evening for two or three days is bound to glimpse a tiger. One memorable stay for us in the rest house was in early summer in 1992 when Johnsingh brought the third batch of MSc (Wildlife Science) students from the Wildlife Institute of India accompanied by colleagues G.S. Rawat and Ajith Kumar. The reserve was then managed by A.S. Negi, an exemplary forest officer of the Uttaranchal cadre. He permitted us to walk around escorted by two armed guards. One day, while returning to the rest house, which was then kept in exceedingly good condition, after exploring the nearby hill, which appeared to be a goral habitat from a distance and while crossing the Paterpani sot, we saw three hog deer. The staff identified them as chital and we explained to them the difference between hog deer and chital.

The grassland-dependent hog deer within the Corbett Tiger Reserve is an endangered species as the major population of 30 to 50 animals is now largely confined to the Dhikala and Phulai chaur (grassland) of the reserve. The total habitat of the two grasslands in summer, when the water level in the Ramganga reservoir recedes, could be close to 10 square kilometres, which may be large enough to support 300−500 hog deer.

Nevertheless, two problems continue to depress the population. One is predation by the jackal and the other is the periodic inundation of the Phulai chaur by the Ramganga reservoir during the rains in July and August. When the grassland is submerged, the hog deer is forced to move to the forest where they may be easily preyed upon by the tiger and the leopard. Johnsingh once collected leopard scat from Kanda (1,000 m, where Jim Corbett shot the Kanda man-eater), which along the road is 20 km from Phulai chaur (300 m). The scat contained the remains of a hog deer.

When chased by jackals, which often hunt in pairs, the hog deer does not run into the forest to escape but turns around and runs back into the grassland, where it is killed by the jackals.

If we are determined to save the hog deer in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, we should keep the Dhikala and Phulai chaur free of jackals for several years and closely monitor the hog deer population. Except in the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve (where nearly 600 hog deer die in floods every year), in almost all other places the hog deer faces a dismal future. While returning from Paterpani, along the road to the Saddle dam, the repeated alarm calls of the hog deer alerted us. Bivash went ahead and photographed three hog deer by the side of a stream in a patch of grassland, which is a continuation of the Paterpani chaur. Johnsingh joked with Bivash that the three hog deer he photographed, which turned out to be little out of focus, were the same seen 20 years ago when Bivash had come to Paterpani as a student.

During this programme we found time to visit the Jhirna (built in 1908) and the Dhela (1926) forest rest houses. As part of various exercises, largely along the southern boundary of the tiger reserve and often along the riverbeds, the class had walked a total of about 50 km. On the sandy and muddy riverbeds, an amazing number of tiger signs were seen but not a single leopard track.

On the walk between Paterpani and saddle dam, we had checked a camera trap maintained by the Forest Department. There were many pictures of tigers but only one of the leopard. The tiger considers the leopard its arch enemy, and therefore at the first opportunity it tries to kill the leopard and the killed leopard is eaten up. If the habitat is suitable with hills and climbable trees, a leopard can escape from a tiger. But in an area with high tiger density, such as the Corbett Tiger Reserve, although the terrain is hilly, leopards are often pushed to the periphery of the forest areas. The stately sal trees, with straight and large boles, which are common in the reserve, may not be suitable for leopards to escape from the tiger when they are rushed.

On the last day, the sky was sea blue and the sun was bright and warm, and we walked from the saddle dam road to the main road—a distance of 6 km—watching the goral, the langur and birds and taking pictures of profusely flowering plants. Notable among the plants were Ipomoea nil with pinkish blue flowers, Ipomoea quamoclit with blood-red flowers, Ipomoea pes-tigridis with white flowers and leaves like tiger pug marks, Urena lobata with small rose-coloured flowers and Mimosa himalayana which was profusely decorated with reddish-violet and cream-coloured flowers.

As we crossed the main dam and drove to the edge of the forest, we observed that the Irrigation Department, which manages the dam, had unnecessarily fenced off areas below the dam with barbed wire and iron rods with spikes, thereby preventing elephants, tigers and sambar from freely using the area. The department had done so with the intention of maintaining a park. In fact, there is no need for such a park within the tiger reserve. This problem is known to Surendra Mehra, the current Director of the Reserve, a former trainee officer of the Wildlife Institute of India, and he assured us that he would get the fences removed. There should never be barbed wire fences within wildlife habitats as they can cause injury to large mammals.

Mehra also informed us that he was aware of the importance of the inconspicuous Kalagarh corridor (a small nallah that drains from the saddle dam area to the Ramganga river). He promised to take measures to protect it by banning woodcutting along the nallah by the people of Kalagarh village and by removing structures, including barbed wire fences, below the nallah, established in the past for the Kalagarh township. If a tiger or an elephant decides to move from the extensive forests south and south-east of the reservoir (when full, the reservoir spreads over an area of about 80 sq km) to the Kalagarh forests to the west of the Ramganga river, the easiest and the safest route is to go along the nallah, cross the river and enter the Kalagarh forests. Therefore, the nallah and the patch of forest below it should be kept totally free from disturbance.

Before returning to Dehradun, we made a brief visit to Kaladhungi, where Jim Corbett’s winter home—now a museum—is situated. Before reaching Kaladhungi, we had to cross the Boar river, and as we walked over the iron bridge, we discussed Corbett’s days, when he used to catch his dinner, 2−3-pound (1–1.5 kg) golden mahseer, in the river even in March. Now, in summer, the Boar river below the bridge runs bone dry. When we crossed it, there was a copious amount of water. But, as persons who are familiar with the status of the golden mahseer along the foothills, we would say that 2–3-pound mahseer no longer inhabit the Boar river.

Our return journey to Dehradun was through the magnificent forests of Kalagarh and Lansdowne where we had sightings of a large group of nilgai, a group of four sambar with a superb stag in the last stages of velvet (most sambar stags get into hard antlers and ready for rut in November), and barking deer. We also met Champa, a brave Gujjar anti-poaching watcher on patrol duty, who has the unique experience of surviving a tiger attack. As soon as we crossed the Ramganga river, we saw the nilgai in a Zizyphus woodland, where the ground was covered with a carpet of short grass. We had not seen the nilgai during our five days of wandering in the forests east of the river where, within the boundary of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, it, like the hog deer, is an endangered animal. A minimum population of 100 could be supported provided we maintain Zizyphus woodlands with short grass rather than tall grass (for example, Vettiveria zizanoides) in locations such as Dhara, Jhirna, Kotirau and Laldhang where successful village relocation (thanks to A.S. Negi) and lantana eradication (thanks to Rajeev Bharthari, former Director of the reserve, and Professor C.R. Babu of Delhi University,) have taken place.

Biotic pressure

Jim Corbett shot the Rudraprayag man-eater upstream of the Ganga, the Kanda and Mohan man-eaters north of the present-day tiger reserve, and the Thak, Chuka and Talla Des man-eaters upstream of the Sharada on its right bank. Therefore, this bhabar landscape in Uttarakhand, which holds the bulk of the tiger and elephant populations, can be rightly called the Jim Corbett landscape. The unbroken part of this landscape stretches from the eastern part of the Rajaji National Park to the Gola river and is in the safe hands of Surendra Mehra, Saket Badola (Deputy Director, Corbett Tiger Reserve, and a wildlife-trained officer who does a lot of foot patrolling), Amit Verma (Divisional Forest Officer, Kalagarh Forest Division, who is responsible for the notification of the Nandhour Wildlife Sanctuary and who does foot patrolling and works on the resettlement of Gujjars from the Division), Neha Verma (Divisional Forest Officer, Lansdowne Forest Division) and Subhudi, Director, Rajaji National Park, who is determined to establish the long-pending Chilla-Motichur corridor across the Ganga and persuade the Gujjars in the landscape to opt for resettlement and move out of the forest. The upcoming Rajaji Tiger Reserve will have the Laldhang and Kotdwar ranges, which are at present in the Lansdowne Forest Division, as part of its buffer zone. This will hopefully keep away proposed development works such as a State highway through these ranges. Roads bring in lots of threats to the forest areas, which are already under enormous biotic pressure.

One problem to which the Uttarakhand government is not yet alive is the growing firewood and fodder needs of the people living in the towns and numerous villages in the bhabar track. The tiger and elephant habitat is gradually getting whittled away by woodcutting. Khatima Range in the Terai East Forest Division is almost lost to firewood cutting by people from Nepal and India. There should be a dedicated, sustained programme throughout Uttarakhand encouraging people to grow fodder and firewood on their private lands and along the forest boundary. The best-known fodder species is mulberry ( Morus alba), which should be propagated in the thousands wherever possible. We should not hesitate to grow even exotics such as Acacia auriculiformis, Eucalyptus spp and Casuarina equisitifolia along with Dalbergia sissoo to meet the growing firewood needs of the people of the bhabar area. Otherwise the Jim Corbett landscape of Uttarakhand will gradually lose its reputation for a high density tiger population.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India; and Bivash Pandav is with Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.