Fishing for Tiger, by Philip Game

If you don’t spot a tiger in India’s Corbett Tiger Reserve, at least the fish are biting.

“Tiger is giving us dodge”, declares wildlife guide Hem Bahuguna, calling a halt near some tell-tale pug marks (pawprints) and scrapings. As the engine cools, then stills, we hear only the birds, the soft breeze and the distant chattering of monkeys. From time to time, another jeep materialises, stopping to exchange a few words. Otherwise, here in India, most crowded of nations, there is perfect peace.

Corbett is India’s first, perhaps finest, Tiger Reserve and is buffered by surrounding tracts of country. You can spend days chasing tigers or cast a line to tempt the golden mahseer. The Ramganga Reservoir provides year-round water for the animals and spawning grounds for the golden mahseer, which migrates upstream.

Tall stands of teak, with its strikingly wide leaves, and the equally imposing sal clothe the hillsides, and wide gravel river beds traverse expanses of waving grass. Gharial, the snouted crocodile, coexist alongside the mugger crocodile and the otter. Sambar, chital or spotted deer and the solitary muntjac or barking deer are all readily spotted, especially when browsing in the grasslands. Less visible, the wild boar, sloth bear and tiger all record their passing with spoor – paw prints and droppings.

The eco-friendly Vanghat River Lodge in the Corbett Tiger Reserve

The eco-friendly Vanghat River Lodge in the Corbett Tiger Reserve

Panthers, although endangered, continue to be sighted in the hill country – but, Bahuguna admits gloomily, Indian authorities have recently confiscated quantities of contraband skins.

Macaques or rhesus monkeys, the males’ buttocks comically inflamed during the present mating season, together with the larger langurs, enliven otherwise still forests.

At least, 500 of India’s 1,300 known bird species are recorded at Corbett: a hoopoe browses boldly; a lone rose-winged parakeet stands out against bare boughs.

Bahaguna has set up a pre-dawn rendezvous at Amdanda Gate, outside the town of Ramnagar. A pallid pink orb begins to burn through the mists which rise above forest and grassland as the jeep reaches Bijrani camp, where day-visitor facilities operate.

By noon, we have jolted across innumerable gravel river beds, wound up into the dappled shade of sal forest and back down again, and climbed a watchtower on the edge of a broad river valley. We have examined the bark torn and chewed by elephants, noting the bushes trampled by these huge and demanding creatures. Tiger pug marks and droppings beside the track indicate the age and health of the animal.

Tigers often prove elusive, but park director Rajiv Bhartari will explain why this is no cause for concern. At Corbett, an estimated 143 tigers range across 1,218 square kilometres of rugged terrain. This population density is considerably lower – and therefore healthier – than at some of the better-known reserves in western India.

Scientists are conducting a tiger census, and the numbers are coming in well above expectations.

Villagers in the community established by celebrated tiger hunter Jim Corbett

Villagers in the community established by celebrated tiger hunter Jim Corbett

Jim Corbett, author of the best-selling Man-Eaters of Kumaon, became a larger-than-life figure in the Himalayan hill country before World War II. The British hunter tracked down and killed 50 man-eating tigers and more than 250 leopards which had terrorised local villagers, but believed that a taste for human flesh was developed only by ageing or wounded tigers. His concern for the tiger’s survival led to the reservation of what would become today’s Corbett National Park: the starting point in 1973 for the groundbreaking Project Tiger.

The hill people of Kumaon remember Jim Corbett not only by the reservations which bear his name, but for his dedication to the welfare of his tenant farmers for whom he created a model village at Kaladhungi. Choti Haldwani, Corbett’s bungalow where the life-long bachelor lived with his sister Maggie, has been preserved as a museum, whilst a walking trail meanders through the mustard seed and sugar canefields of his former estate.

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