July 25, 2012

Tiger Tourism In Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand

Tiger Sighting in Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve (C.T.R.)

Jim Corbett, a legendary hunter of man-eating tigers before turning conservationist and bestselling author, was born today, 137 years ago.

And today, newspapers reported front page, and analysed in inside pages, the order the Supreme Court passed yesterday imposing a complete ban on tourism activities in the core areas of India’s Tiger Reserves. The order was in response to Ajay Dubey’s petition seeking a court ruling directing States to notify buffer and peripheral areas in Tiger Reserves under the Wildlife (Protection) Act to prevent tourism in the core areas.

I cannot say for sure what Jim Corbett would’ve made of the Supreme Court ruling on the eve of his birth anniversary but I’ve little doubt that he would applauded the Bench of Justices Swatanter Kumar and Ibrahim Kalifullah for passing the judgement if he believed it would give tigers the much needed space from humans increasingly breathing down its neck.

Personally I feel it’s the perfect birthday gift to Jim Corbett even if the timing of the Supreme Court order was a coincidence, for it was in the Corbett Tiger Reserve (C.T.R) on a recent visit that I truly understood firsthand the pressure Tiger Tourism is subjecting its most famous and celebrated mascot to.


In the time it took Mahesh to drive us from the Dhangarhi Gate to Dhikala along the northern boundary of the Corbett National Park, a distance of over 18 kms., much of it rambling along the Ramganga river that flows through the Patli Dun valley while flanked by dense forests of Sal, Khair, and Shisum, Mahesh had little doubt in his mind that we, Philip and I, were not his typical ‘Tiger Tourists’.

“Because both of you are equally interested in all wildlife forms and not just in tigers, you will be blessed with its sighting more than the other tourists,” he announced.

“I’m sure you’ll see tigers because you’re not chasing it,” he said more than once before continuing, “Most of them (visitors to Corbett National Park) are least interested in anything but tigers. They care for little else. It’s always Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. Tiger dhikao. Tiger dhikao. Tiger kahan hai?

Mahesh had made little attempt to hide his contempt for his ‘typical tiger tourists’. It was a strange situation for, as a driver working for a safari tour operator based out of Ramnagar, he earned his living from conducting tiger safaris for tourists, most of who apparently cared for little else other than tiger sightings while pressing safari drivers like him into chasing the tiger through jungle trails.

Invariably, a failure to see a tiger meant the visit translated into a trip gone down the drain for the ‘Tiger Tourist’, with the blame for not 'showing' them a tiger laid at the feet of the driver.   

Mahesh was no doubt helped with his perception of the both of us by the length of time it had taken us to cover the distance of over 18 kms., easily double of the time the rest of the visitors took that summer day on their way to Dhikala for a night halt at the Forest Rest Houses.

We had meandered along, pausing each time Philip saw a bird or heard a movement in the undergrowth or when I happened upon flowers, trees, or the many Sots, seasonal streams emptying into the Ramganga, along the way. It mattered little that the Sots had run dry, exposing boulders that glinted in the Sun while contrasting starkly with the blue skies overhead. It was a sight to behold.

We were no doubt helped in our plodding along at snail’s pace by the presence of a Forest Guide whom we had met at the Dhangari Gate when I entered the small office to present our permit issued for our stay at Dhikala, a possession worth its weight in gold and probably sought as fiercely as the holy grail.

After checking if our permit was in order, the official asked me if we could accommodate a Forest Guide and his colleague, a cook at the canteen the Govt. ran at its Dhikala camp and where we would dine later that night, on our ride to Dhikala.

“They need to report for duty at Dhikala,” he said. The duo had been waiting at the entrance gate for a ride. We could not refuse though for a moment I squirmed at the idea of a crowded jeep not affording the views we hoped to take in on our roll through the jungle. Earlier we had passed up an opportunity to join up with a group just so we could pace our own journey through the jungle, unencumbered by another's priorities and interests.

Corbett National Park is not a destination those from the west of India visit everyday, nor every year. This was my first visit to the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Philip had visited once before, 12 years ago.  

Skies threatened overhead. A light drizzle was beginning to turn into a steady downpour by the time the duo joined us. Mahesh got off to draw the tarpaulin cover back, affording us some protection from the rain. But it blocked our view. The five of us now stuck to our respective corners as we bumped along. 

Mahesh had a difficult time rolling up the tarpaulin top the moment rains receded only to draw it back once the rains returned. Eventually the rains went away and to everyone's relief we had the sky for a roof. I thrilled in the jungle air that brought fragrances floating by.

Along the way, the more the guide answered questions we put to him, the more we fell behind on the afternoon tiger safari scheduled from the Dhikala base camp.

While the Dhangarhi gate, the entry to Dhikala zone, is open to permit holders through the day, certain core areas in each of Corbett National Park’s five Zones (Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna, and Northern Zone) officially open at 3:00 pm in the afternoon and typically close between 6:00 and 7:00 pm in the evening. In the morning, they open at 5:45 am and close at 11:00 am. (However visitor timings can vary at each of the zones.)

The rest of the permit holders had sped past us to make the 3:00 pm opening count, and were probably on their way about Dhikala after unloading their luggage in their rooms while we, more Philip than I, debated the finer points of Greyheaded Woodpeckers and Starlings among other avian species along the way, including the Grey-headed Fish Eagle we sought in the skies from the spotting platform constructed at High Bank on the southern bank of the Ramganga shortly after we had passed Jamun Sot.

As we headed back to the jeep from the spotting platform, Mahesh said again, “You’ll surely see tigers now.” He was convinced. And I hoped he was right.

It was as if each bird or sound we stopped to explore was a further vindication in his eyes of our status as "true" wildlife enthusiasts, and in his mind it was only fair that the tiger blesses us with its august presence. I could see he was willing it to happen and would likely take it personally were the tiger to give us a slip under his watch. This, after Philip had let slip that while we'd absolutely love to make a tiger sighting, we wouldn't have returned empty handed from the jungle if we didn't get lucky with the striped cat. There's so much else to see in the Corbett National Park.   

Faced with an abundance of birdlife, the tiger, more so in Philip’s case than mine, had gradually receded to the periphery of our anticipation since the moment we had driven through the Dhangari gate at half past two in the afternoon, eventually reaching the Dhikala Tourist Complex around 5:00 pm. We were the last to report in.

But it was not until the next morning that I truly understood the sentiment behind Mahesh’s perception of Tiger Tourism and ‘Tiger Tourists’, and the intensity behind his repeating it.

It took a tiger sighting to reveal the circus that bedded down. A circus to beat all other.

The tiger sighting itself was a matter of chance just as most tiger sightings are.

Starting early at three quarters past five in the morning, after exploring much of the waking hour along several jungle trails, we had eventually driven through Dhikala Chaur, a stirring expanse of man-made grassland in the backdrop of the ethereal Kanda ridge to the north.

Deer abounded every which way we turned our head. In the gathering Sun the last of the elephants were retreating to the shade of trees ringing the open grassland to the south as we turned back from the waters of the Ramganga backed up from the Kalagarh dam downstream.

After reluctantly tearing away from the trail that had revealed successive herds of elephants the evening before, Mahesh turned off the ignition as we neared our forest campsite on our way past it before leaping off the open-top Maruti jeep and sprinting in the direction of the camp entrance to relieve his upset stomach.

If it wasn’t for his upset stomach we would’ve missed seeing the tiger as it made its way inland from the Ramganga river, padding through shoulder high grass in the measured, deliberate way that cats walk.

Watching the tiger approach I hoped it would not deviate for, if it kept its line I was certain that it would, in less than five minutes, appear on the motor trail less than 100 metres ahead of where Mahesh had decided he could no longer hold his stomach back. Fortunately, in his urgency he had forgotten to take the key along.

In the event of the tiger charging, unlikely as it was, it helps to have a key in the ignition and someone to steer it quickly away.

In Mahesh’s absence, Pappu, the guide who was accompanying us, gunned the engine to life and prepared to fly down the track, oblivious to Philip roaring over the revving engine, “What’re you doing, what’re you doing, don’t go close, don’t.” Philip was beyond angry at the thought that in racing to meet the tiger, the overenthusiastic guide would scare it away. Worse still he might interfere with the tiger’s morning duties whatever they might be. We would soon find out.

Just then I saw Mahesh returning through an opening in the solar fencing ringing the campsite. He wasn’t done with adjusting his pants and was drawing the zip up when I frantically motioned him to hurry up just as Pappu set the jeep in motion.

Mahesh instinctively knew what was up. He broke into a sprint still clutching his pants and just when I thought he would not make it to the jeep, for Pappu had picked up speed, Mahesh managed to fling himself halfway in, his legs trailing behind before we dragged him in, all this to the sound of Philip increasingly frustrated with Pappu for attempting to speed up to meet the tiger.

“Don’t. Don’t. What’re you doing, man,” Philip entreated before bellowing harshly, “Don’t go close.” Meanwhile, Pappu, his instincts honed over time by Tiger Tourists goading him to get ever closer to a tiger, struggled to act against the grain, eventually brought the jeep to a halt, likely alarmed by Philip's vehemence that we get no closer to the tiger than we already had. The distance would be bridged by binoculars. I had lost my field glasses by then though I wouldn't learn of it until it was time to leave Dhikala later that morning, thinking I had left it behind at our quarters.

“We could’ve gotten a little more closer,” Pappu said, more perplexed at being made to keep distance from the tiger than unhappy.

Just then the tiger appeared from the grass and momentarily hit the trail ahead of us before crossing to the other side, slipping into more shoulder high grass. It was on a hunt. Of that I was sure.

There was no one on the trail besides another jeep load who were making for the trail from the grassland. They had seen the tiger make the diagonal and were speeding to where we had come to a stop. 

Our guide was quickly on his phone, dialling a fellow guide with directions to our location. 

"We just spotted the tiger near the tree in which a leopard was seen with its prey recently while a tiger waited under the tree for the leopard and its kill. Remember the spot? Come soon," Pappu said in his cell phone. 

In all probability he was returning a favour for, tiger safaris count on tiger sightings to please their clients, each safari driver quickly notifying the others of a tiger sighting.

I could see that Mahesh was not happy with Pappu giving away our location. I soon saw why.

Within minutes, safari jeeps with ‘Tiger Tourists’ were converging on us from all directions, clouds of dust trailing in their wake as they sped up the trail. All it takes is one phone call to one tiger safari driver for all safari drivers to learn of the sighting. 

On any given day, each zone in the Corbett National Park sees upward of 25 jeep safaris in each of the two sessions - morning and afternoon. 

The word about 'Ol Stripey soon got around as forest guides worked their cell phones informing their colleagues, on duty in other jeeps ferrying tourists around the forest reserve, and no sooner I turned my head after trailing the tiger in the grass to my left, a succession of jeeps had roared to a stop behind our own.

"They should disable mobile connectivity in tiger reserves," Mahesh volunteered as the safari circus came to town.

"Before, it used to be good, no mobile connectivity in this area," Mahesh continued. "There was no way to communicate a tiger sighting unless you crossed someone on your way after a sighting. Those who made the tiger sighting could enjoy the experience in peace. There was no jockeying for positions like this," he said, pointing to the safari jeeps arrayed in every which direction, attempting to get as close as was humanly possible without straying off the trail, a strict no-no. But it didn't stop one impatient safari driver from leaving the trail to make a U-turn. He was set upon by the others - "You'll create trouble for the rest of us."

In front of me, an equally long line of jeeps that had come roaring down the path in clouds of dust crowded the jungle trail and effectively cut off the tiger's path in the event it were necessary to use the trail as it stalked its prey, deer, in shoulder high grass.

Crouching, it went still in the grass, gazing steadily ahead in the direction of a break along a treeline to the south where several deer stood alert. If not for the fact we had sighted the tiger and were trailing it through binoculars, it could just as easily have been lost in the grass to passing tourists. 

Soon elephant safaris, the mahouts too carry mobile phones, crashed through the jungle, literally on the back of the tiger while 'Tiger Tourists' atop swayed in their mounts. I counted two elephants hot on the trail of the tiger. I was told more elephants would join them. And sure enough they did.

"Those mahouts will not give up, they'll chase the tiger through the jungle now," Mahesh commented. The mahouts would no doubt be egged on by the 'Tiger Tourists' atop their elephants. 

Watching the scene unfold an empty feeling settled about me. I had read of similar experiences but no reading will ever communicate the gravity of Tiger Tourism to quite the same extent and intensity as experiencing it firsthand will.

Knowing something as a fact is very different from knowing it from experience.

While the racket did not seem to bother the tiger much, at least on the face of it though I cannot be certain, the commotion however made the prey it was stalking, extremely fidgety. The elephants, and the jeeps had cut off its access. The lot of us had managed to blow the tiger's cover and effectively ruined its hunt. I've no doubt about it. None at all.

However, the tourists, including Philip and I, did not miss their breakfast. It was waiting for us as we trooped back to the Forest Rest House for a wash before filing into the canteen for a steaming menu of South Indian and North Indian choices served with generous toppings of excited chatter of the morning's tiger sighting.


Anonymous said...

very descriptive and dramatic write up...i almost felt the tiger is infront of me.

Anil P said...

Anon: Thank you :-)

austere said...

What a pity... I could feel your outrage.
Fantastic photos.

PallSin said...

Nice pics. It's my most fav. place. Haven't spotted a tiger though. :(

Agnija said...

Yes, it was quite annoying the way the tourists were being noisy and loud the whole time in Ranthambhore. It was not the Zen experience I had in South Africa.

philip said...

the enthusiasm of tiger tourism should be directed towards tiger conservation so that the dwindling number of tigers will increase and then maybe the late jim corbett might think of REBIRTH in the land that was so dear to him

Riot Kitty said...

I think wild animals should be left alone.

Susan Scheid said...

Wonderful post, conveying the huge variety of nature as well as the dismay at how it is dumbed down to a single thing. I recall my once-in-a-lifetime visit to Tanzania. There were two among us who were avid bird watchers. I learned such an enormous amount from them, and realized how impoverished it was to care for nothing but the large mammals (though they were magnificent, too, of course). I remember one fellow who became tremendously impatient when we would ask to stop the jeep to better view a bird . . . he only relented when we sighted an eagle. That seemed a small victory. Mobile phones in nature have spoiled a lot of things, actually. A friend here who is a wonderful forager of rare mushrooms and ramps despairs that discovered treasures will be overrun and depleted by mobile users who send a call out so hundreds come. It all defeats the purpose of discovering, doesn't it?

Balachandran V said...

The sickening wildlife tourism has not been more descriptively portrayed before. And to remember that the ancestors of these tourists killed most of the tigers! Wildlife tourists are worse than hunters or poachers.

Anuradha Shankar said...

lovely post, Anil.... we experienced the same thing on our visit to corbett, minus the tiger sighting though!! and seeing a young school boy do a little dance on spotting a deer made us wonder what would happen if a tiger did indeed turn up! maybe the tiger was smart to stay out of sight that day... and the ruling is welcome,... it might not help us sight tigers more, but if the initiative works, our children will get to see more tigers!

Anil P said...

Austere: More disappointment, actually. Helplessness as well.

While it helps to have humans experience nature, but surely not in the way the interaction ends up - chasing wildlife around in jeeps, driven by greed and and often an equally insensitive 'eco-tourists'.

Pall Sin: Thanks. Maybe if you ignore the tiger it might just about grace your visit with a presence :-)

Agnija: It can be annoying. Maybe if a bit of discipline and awareness before they get driven out into the jungle, might help sensitize 'tourists' to their role.

More importantly, the 'tiger tour' operators out to make a quick buck need to have a lens trained on them as well.

Philip: True. Sometimes Tiger Conservation might just be about leaving them alone while ensuring their security from poachers.

The Supreme Court ban on tour operators conducting wildlife safaris in core areas is welcome.

Jim Corbett would've been disheartened about the ways things have turned out.

Riot Kitty: I agree.

Susan Scheid: Thank you.

So the Eagle came to your rescue :-) I can imagine the bloke being awed by the sight of the raptor as opposed to smaller but equally beautiful birds.

I agree with your impression about mobile phones in this scenario. Instant communication will mean instant response by trampling feet. Best would be for each to be judicious about what find/discovery to announce.

With experienced bird-watchers, a trip into the jungle is usually an enlightening experience for the breadth of knowledge passed on and also for the fact that the pace slows down and one can experience nature better.

True, while the tiger is truly a magnificent animal, it jars to see almost all wildlife programmes on TV focused on the tiger to the exclusion of nearly every other creature.

One reason why I feel most visitors to India's Tiger Sanctuaries are so fixated on seeing the tiger, driven by the hoopla around it.

Balachandran V: Humans have killed a lot of wildlife, including the tiger.

More debilitating is the loss of habitat.

Anuradha Shankar: Thank you.

That's a good sign, being joyous on spotting a deer.

Most times the tigers will stay out of sight.

Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate all the info I've read here. I will spread the word about your blog to other people. Cheers.

dr.antony said...

Hi Anil
After so long.
Wonderful narration and captivating pictures.
In the name of wildlife tourism,we encroach and destroy the habitat of these helpless creatures.Like Balan said,this is worse than being poachers.

Anonymous said...

The debate about tourism versus conservation is a difficult one. Of course, conservation for conservation sake is desirable. But in reality, without some economic benefit like tourism, conservation is not likely to succeed. Perhaps the best way is to have rules and procedures that reduce the impact of the rubber-necking tourists.

flight2dubai said...

Great thanks sharing your experience to Corbett Tiger Reserve parks. This posts seems to be written by heart and put all each and every bit of experience and feeling into the post. Post's picture taken are very scenic and occasion with clear cut view Great. I have learnt alot from you from reading.

Anil P said...

Anon: Thank you.

Dr. Antony: Thank you. Wildlife Tourism has derived from Eco-Tourism.

While it's helpful in moderation if for nothing else than atleast for the fact that it introduces people to the importance of wildlife, wildlife's role in our eco-system, the power in its beauty to move senses.

What kills the experience, and also the wildlife is the rampant nature of eco-tourism in the name of supporting people earning their livelihood. Soon earnings cross the threshold separating "earning livlihood" from "greed and profiteering". Here, the cost becomes too high to bear.

And encroachment for space to carry out wildlife tourism is the first hurdle, reducing wildlife habitat. Soon poaching strengthens.


As you say, Rules and Regulations are a must. More importantly, Rules and Regulations that are enforced strictly.

In addition, personally I feel the debate has become difficult, rather we've made it difficult by not drawing Red Lines that say - this much and no more. Or "Here, nothing".

The moment we tie economic benefits to conversation, Public policy by publicly elected Governments will invariably tilt toward Public driven by the "need" and/or "necessity" to please electoral constituencies.

It's here the dam is breached, and most times, all balance lost.

And the cycle begins: Economic benefit from wildlife tourism attracts settlers, encroachers. Soon, boundaries of the Wildlife Sanctuary are thickly populated if not encroached upon. A predictable cycle begins:

A Tiger then kills from the settlements ringing the Park, either humans or livestock. People are up in arms. Poisoning of Tigers using poisoned baits follows. Elected representatives, fearful of losing their vote bank rush into the melee. And shooters are deployed. A Tiger or two is killed.

And among the economic benefits to be had is Tiger Skin, Tiger Claws, Tiger Entrails to feed Chinese market. And among the settlements it takes only a few individuals to lured by big bucks into poaching wildlife.

Renuka said...

exceptionally nice pictures...

Sunayana said...

You document your experiences very well. The driver's lament is understandable. Tourists come in all shapes and sizes and the ones that are most obnoxious are those who plan to 'come, see and leave' and expect full value for money in the bargain.

I remember going on a 12-hour overnight drive to a turtle beach in Oman with one such tourist couple. They kept saying that if we didn't see any turtles at the beach, the whole trip would be nothing but a waste. They completely failed to take in the absolutely stunning star-lit sky on the journey, the dead silence of the night that only nature can offer, and upon touching the beach in the morning - the gorgeous arabian sea in Oman.

Keep posting..I wonder how you get the time to blog. ;)

Anil P said...

Renuka: Thank you.

Sunayana: Thank you :-)

The driver was peeved with the mad rush though he was a part of it. The profile of tourists to wildlife sanctuaries has changed quite a bit from before, more so as more and more people can afford to travel.

I agree, there's much to see on the journey than merely the destination, something that's lost on tourists. Might have to do with expectations hotwired by those '50 things to do before ....' kind :-)

Haha, a million dollar question, just about making ends meet in terms of making time available to post here :-)