“Those who have never seen a leopard under favorable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of coloring, of this the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles.” Jim Corbett, Man-Eaters of Kumaon
You don’t have to be a student of Shakespeare to recognize the passion the author of this quote expresses for the subject, in this case, the Indian leopard. It is this passion that gave birth to the Jim Corbett National Park, Asia’s oldest national park and the first Tiger reserve of India. This vast expanse of unlimited flora and fauna is located in Nainital, Uttarakhand and is a favorite with wildlife lovers from India and abroad.
The Story behind the park
The Jim Corbett National Park has been named after Edward James Corbett, a man who shot 19 tigers and 14 leopards in their natural habitat. Does it seem paradoxical to name a wildlife preservation center after a hunter who played a major role in killing wildlife? You’ll understand better if you get to know Jim Corbett. The tigers and leopards that he had killed were man-eaters, animals that were forced by circumstance to eat human flesh and who acquired a penchant for the same. He protected the villagers of the Kumaon district from legendary man-eaters and became very popular in the region.
Yet, Jim Corbett wouldn’t hunt without reason. He agreed to hunt the jungle tigers only because they posed a grave threat to the human population in the forest. He also understood the situation of these animals that forced them to leave their natural prey and start attacking humans. After helping the villagers exterminate these man-eaters, Jim Corbett started propagating wildlife conservation; and since he had done so much for the society, people were willing to listen.
Jim Corbett, the hunter, became Jim Corbett, the conservationist; he was also Jim Corbett, the writer. The books he has written, starting with “The Man-Eaters of Kumaon” were instant best-sellers and created wide awareness about the wildlife in India as well as the need for conservation. He played a major role in initiating the establishment of India’s first national park in 1934. Started first as Hailey National Park, the name of the national park was later changed to Corbett National Park in 1957, two years after Jim Corbett died.
Where is Corbett National Park?
Located 160 miles to the North-East of Delhi, the Corbett National Park sprawls across three districts of Uttarakhand covering over 500 square miles. Its position at the foothills of the Himalayas between the Himalayan and Sivalik ranges accounts for its wealth of bio-diversity.
How to reach Jim Corbett National Park?
The closest airports are at Delhi, Dehradun, Chandigarh and Lucknow. There are regular buses and trains from Delhi and other major Indian cities to Ramnagar, the closest access town. If you’ve booked a resort, check out transportation options they offer to move inside the park, else book a 4WD at Ramnagar.
What’s at the Corbett Park
The ecological population of the park justifies its description as the “land of the Roar, Trumpet and Song”. With its combination of river, grassland and sal forest settings, the Corbett park is home to not just the elusive tiger, but also plenty of other animals like the sloth bear, sambars, four-horned antelope, spotted deer, leopards, wild elephants, barking deers and jackals to mention a few. There are over 400 species of birds with plenty more coming in during migration season that lasts from December till March. This is the northern-most extent in Asia to find the elephant.
Tiger Sighting in Corbett
Corbett is one of the few parks where tigers aren’t tracked or baited; this is also one of the few places where tigers and elephants coexist. This said, tiger sightings in Corbett aren’t that easy, mostly because of the vegetation. But when you do catch sight of a tiger, the experience is exhilarating, for you will be watching the majestic animal in action in its own terrain, when it crouches for its kill, when it leaps to attack its prey or when it basks under the sun, satisfied with its hunt.
Summer months of March to June are considered the best time to sight tigers to Corbett since the vegetation cover is low and the animals have to come out to drink water from the streams. Hiring a good guide who knows how to read the forest can also improve your chances of seeing tigers drastically.
There are five main Safari zones at the Corbett National Park; Dhikala, Bijrani, Domunda, Jhirna and Sonanadi.
Dhikala. This is the most popular zone and as expected, the most expensive too. Located right at the heart of the forest, Dhikala is the best place for spotting animals, even the tiger, because of its multiple terrains. The view from here is fantastic and there is a watch tower that you can climb for a panoramic view. It’s important to book your accommodation here early, if possible, months in advance if you want to stay at Dhikala. Take an elephant safari early in the morning to get the best possible animal sightings. Dhikala is closed from June 15th to November 15th every year since the monsoons can flood the place. Day tours are not allowed except in conducted safaris organized by Corbett Park.
Jhirna. Jhirna, with its vivid flame-of-the-forest trees and wooded landscape is a visually pleasing zone. This is open throughout the year and is one of the best zones for bird watchers in India. Endangered gharial crocodiles float in the Ramganga reservoir and bask along its banks, but don’t even think of swimming here for if the crocodiles don’t get you, the forest authorities definitely will, as is evident from the signboard here, “Survivors will be prosecuted”.
Bijrani. Closest to Ramnagar and best suited for a day safari, the Bijrani zone is endowed with plenty of greenery and offers good scope to watch animals in the wild. Elephant safaris are available here or you can explore by just hiring a jeep with a knowledgeable guide from Ramnagar. Bijrani is open from October 30th till June 30th every year and permits have to be obtained before entering the zone.
Durga Devi. Located inside the park, the Durga Devi zone is popular with tourists who loce fishing. The combination of river and mountain terrains makes it a haven for several varieties of fish and birds; the Mahaseer fish in particular is very popular here. Elephant safaris are organized and these are very effective for tourists who wish to explore the green areas of the forest that can’t be accessed by vehicles to watch leopards and tigers.
Sonanadi. Placed close to the Corbett National Park, the Sonanadi Sanctuary is open throughout the year. This place has historic and cultural value in addition to its fascinating flora and fauna because this is believed to be the place where Queen Sita brought up her children Lava and Kusha after being sent away from Ayodhya. There is a temple and ashram in this zone honoring the queen who is worshiped as a Goddess.
Where to stay?
The Dhikala camp in the park is the most sought after place to stay in because of its location, right in the middle of the jungle from where animal sightings are just a few meters away. Though basic, the camp offers good vegetarian food and electricity (which is not available at most other places). Bookings have to be made months in advance and reconfirmed by phone since this camp has heavy demand.
There are plenty of scenic resorts, inns and camps outside Corbett Park along the river; these range from simple homestays to plush resorts and rustic camps. If you’re looking for comfortable stay, you could opt for one of the plush resorts, but if it’s the game you’re interested in, forest rest houses, especially Dhikala, would be your best bet.
What to do?
Elephant Safaris are a wonderful experience since riding an elephant is the best way to explore wooded terrains that can’t be reached on wheels. Forest rest houses like the ones at Dhikala, Jhirna and Kairal offer elephant safaris for 2 hours in the morning and evening. As many as 4 people can sit on an elephant for these rides. Monday is a day off for elephants in most camps.
Jeep Safaris, especially done early in the morning are exhilarating. Hire a vehicle from Ramnagar and explore zones like Jhirna, Bijrani and Durga Devi to get unmatched glimpses of animals in the wild as you zip by. It’s advisable to hire a guide who knows the place; then your chance of getting great shots on your camera multiplies.
Corbett Museum is a pleasant diversion from the wild where you can witness the memories of the person who established the identity of the place on the world map. Jim Corbett’s winter home in Kaladhungi is now a museum and preserves all his reminiscences in such a way that any visitor will experience the affectionate relationship between the hunter and the village.
About 4 kms from the Corbett Museum is the Corbett Falls, a pristine landmark with peaceful surroundings of the forest.
The Kosi River is yet another fun place to visit with its plethora of activities like white water rafting, rope crossing and bridge slithering. This river is the source of water for plenty of animals and birds; so you can expect to get quite a few sightings along the banks especially in summer.
If you’re planning to visit right after the monsoons in October, you could consider fishing or angling in the Ramganga River. Marchula Bridge and Van Ghat Pool are favorite haunts for fishing and angling. The river that rushes in from the Himalayas thrives with fresh-water fish like the Mahasheer, goonch and trout. Permission has to be obtained from park authorities before fishing.
Canter Safari. Organized by the Tiger Reserve, this safari on an open 18-seater is one of the best ways to explore the Dhikala zone for people who are not staying there. With informative guides and a 4 hour long ride through the jungles, this can be an enjoyable experience.
The Garjia Temple, located about 14 kms from Ramnagar, is very popular with locals. Built on top of a high rock, this temple commands a terrific view and is definitely worth visiting.
If you’re feeling touristy, experience the life of a villager amidst the pleasant surroundings of Camp Kyari. Overlooking the Corbett National Park, this eco-friendly camp offers a wonderful experience with its organic farms, mud huts and solar lanterns along with plenty of activities too.
Points to remember before planning your trip to Corbett National Park
- Book at least half your trip well in advance; the demand in this place is unpredictable. If you are not planning to stay inside the park, book your safaris and jeeps right when you book your accommodation. Often, you may have to pay the entire amount when you make the booking; this is required to get entry permission to the park.
- Different zones have different opening and closing dates; do some research before you leave to see if the zone you’re interested in will be open and operational.
- Since this is protected area, a lot of identity checks will be done at zone gates and park entrance. Keep your passport and identity documents in a body sling bag, ready and safe.
- Appoint a reliable guide who not only knows where to take you inside the park, but can also help you with the required permissions.
- Accommodation inside the park can be quite basic; get your own supplies if you want to be more comfortable. Also, since this is a forest, it’s better not to leave provisions in the open.
- Follow park rules; visitors are allowed to trek or fish only at specific places. Loud music, speeding vehicles and loud noises are offensive in the wild. Keep handy supplies like flashlights, first-aid boxes and medicines with you.
Though the internet and guidebooks have plenty to say about the Jim Corbett National Park, the best guide to the personality of the park would be any of Jim Corbett’s bestsellers like the “Maneater of Kumaon”. Take along one of his books as a ready guide to the history of the park and get into its spirit.