India’s first national park was set up in 1936, under the aegis of the then governor of the United Provinces, Malcolm Hailey. Among the people who pushed for the creation of the park, helped in its establishment, and played an important role in demarcating the boundaries of the park, was Jim Corbett. A little over two decades later, in 1957, the park was renamed in his honour – today, it’s the Jim Corbett National Park, one of Northern India’s most popular wildlife preserves and an easy weekend getaway from Delhi.
Some important facts, now.
To begin with, the vital stats:
Corbett National Park covers over 1,300 square kilometres of territory in the state of Uttarakhand. This includes both grasslands in the plains, as well as dense forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. On the eastern periphery of the park flows the Kosi river; within the park itself is another river, the Ramganga, and its tributaries.
The park is divided into three zones:
(a) The buffer zone, where villages exist, and villagers are allowed to collect timber or other forest produce (as long as they don’t actually chop down trees)
(b) The tourist zone, which is where tourists can move around
(c) The core zone, where only forest officials are permitted. This is the area that typically has the largest wildlife population.
Staying at Corbett:
No private hotels or resorts are allowed inside Corbett, so the only option if you are keen on staying within the park is to book rooms at one of the Forest Rest Houses (FRHs) operated by the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam – the government tourist bureau. There are some 15 of these FRHs within Corbett. All provide very basic facilities: you’ll get clean linen and vegetarian food, but that’s about it. The most popular of the FRHs is the one at Dhikala, which is also the only FRH to have electricity round the clock: the others get power for only about 3 hours a day.
Dhikala is superbly sited – beside the Ramganga river, and with extensive grasslands beyond, so there’s plenty of opportunity to see everything from herds of wild elephants to spotted deer and even tiger (I’ve seen all of these while staying at Dhikala). Unfortunately, this makes Dhikala very sought after, so if you want to stay here, book well in advance – a couple of months before you arrive should be fine. Note that the park shuts down during the monsoon (mid-June to approximately October). For the first couple of weeks in June, Dhikala doesn’t accept bookings; accommodation is on a first-come, first-serve basis, which is a distinctly dicey proposition.
If you don’t mind staying outside the tourist zone of the park, there are literally dozens of private properties to choose from, along the Kosi river. These lie in an almost uninterrupted row between the riverbank and the highway that demarcates Corbett. Tariffs and facilities vary considerably. Try to look out for hotels near Gargia (also spelt Garjia) – they’re the nearest to the park gate, and chances of seeing wildlife are high.
Moving inside Corbett:
No private vehicles – except those operated by licensed travel agents for jeep safaris – are allowed inside Corbett. If you’ve come in your own vehicle to Corbett, you’ll have to leave it in the parking lot outside the park, and then enter – either on the 5-hour long ‘bus safari’ operated by the forest department (the bus leaves from the Dhikala gate; charges are Rs 1,125 per person), or in a hired jeep. Jeeps – driven by specially trained drivers, never self-driven – can be hired, either through your hotel or through one of the travel agents along the Gargia road. These jeeps have to be booked about a week in advance, because a special permit has to be obtained from the forest department. Permits are issued for four gates into the tourist zone: Dhikala, Bijrani, Khara and Durgadevi.
The other option is to go on elephant back. Government elephants carry tourists from Dhikala into the surrounding jungles on ‘safaris’ of about a couple of hours each. If you’re staying at one of the hotels outside the tourist zone, an elephant can be hired to take you on safari – these go into the woods across the Kosi river.
What you can hope to see:
Corbett is known primarily as a tiger reserve, but its population of tigers has declined over the past few years. The estimated number of tigers today is about 27 – and since they shy away from humans, don’t be terribly sure you’ll get to see one. You just may get to see pugmarks or a leftover kill, but that may be all. Much more common are the elephants – Corbett has about 700 of them, moving either in herds of cows and calves, or as solitary tuskers. There are 80 leopards (again, very difficult to sight), and – the most common – deer, which estimates number anywhere between 50,000 to 1,00,000. These include sambar, kakar (barking deer), chital (spotted deer) and hog deer. There are also monkeys – rhesus macaques and langurs; and a variety of small cats, such as civet cats, jungle cats and leopard cats. Water bodies like the Ramganga hold crocodiles and gharial. What you’re certain to see are the birds of Corbett. The park has an estimated 600 species of bird life, and even a half-hour drive through the jungle can show you a plethora of birds, such as red jungle fowl, kaleej pheasant, king fishers, rollers, lapwings, peafowl, and more.
Some dos and don’ts: The most important part of all this, and there are plenty of signboards in the tourist zone and at the gates to the park to alert visitors to the dangers of Corbett, both from the wildlife and to the wildlife.
(a) If you’re on the highway along the periphery of the park, do drive slow (a maximum of 45 km/hr for a car).
(b) Don’t honk.
(c) This used to apply when private vehicles were allowed into the tourist zone of Corbett: don’t drive at night. It still does apply to some extent on the peripheral highway, since a lot of Corbett’s wildlife is nocturnal or semi-nocturnal. Also, there is no fence to separate the park from the surrounding areas – just a thinning out of the jungle. This doesn’t really deter animals from venturing out, and night driving can either result in accidents that injure animals – or can cause you injury, should you have the ill luck to run into an angry tusker, for instance.
(d) Keep your voice down when in the jungle. Wild animals have superb hearing – a wildlife expert at the Corbett Museum told us that a deer can hear a raised voice 3 km away. If you want to see wildlife, keep mum.
(e) Don’t walk in the woods. Though Corbett is called a ‘park’, it’s not just a pretty landscape – it can be very dangerous.
(f) Don’t attempt to sleep outside. It’s hardly possible, now, what with forest rangers being alert to that sort of thing, but I remember the first time I visited Corbett, a ranger recounted an incident of an American tourist who managed to evade officials and erected a tent near Dhikala. A passing ranger noticed the tent a day or so later – empty. The tourist’s body, mauled by a tiger, was found nearby.