Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tiger Trails in the land of Jim Corbett

         Shikar was  one of  the  most popular recreational activities during  pre independence age of India.From kings , princes, and to the British Indian rulers were proud of the size and nature of the hunted beast. The remains of their hunting legacy  can be  still found on the walls of ancient bungalows in the form of stuffed animal heads. Most of the kings and noblemen used to shoot at the animals without adequate knowledge and understanding about  the jungle or its methods, guided  by then experts, only to fire  bullets. But in those times, existed  men , who used to wander through the forest all alone and dared to shoot the dangerous  animals from their bases.They understood  every nook and corner of  the  forest and  animals as their own hands and  they later turned  in to  environmentalists and animal lovers. Kenneth Anderson and Jim Corbett are the big names among such jungle heroes . Both of them were very good writers and their books still inspire all the generations
           Their  adventures and enthusiasm in hunting was also well captured in their writings. Their writings  drew a picture of the forest of that era in the mind canvas of the reader. Moreover, both were renowned writers, their writings had an impact on  the forest  conservation activities during that period
Jim Edward Corbett (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

      The dreams that I've been chasing for many years was to walk through the forests of Himalayan valley that Jim Corbett's stories told and to  hunt tigers with my camera. My  dream finally saw light when I landed at Jim Corbett national park.The park is  about 13 km away  from the town of Ramnagar to reach the main entrance of Dhikala zone of Jim Corbett National Park from where you have to travel about 35 km to the guest house of Dhikala. From the main road as we enter Dhikala, Jim Corbett welcomes you with his smiling face in the form of a statue and it will remind you of the flesh eating cannibals of Rudraprayaga and Kumayoon. We may hear  sudden gun shots and animal roars barging the silence of the jungle,after all we are moving through Jim's land.The land once ruled by him...

To be at the Jim Corbett's soil, is a dream come true for a forest adventurer. Earlier booked gypsy picked me up from Ramnagar in the early morning. Within half an hour, we reached the main entrance of the Dhikala and took another half an hour for checking .At seven thirty the trip in Dhikala started .Our next four days will be in Dhikala. The driver Sajid Shah is a good driver and tracker .He has a good idea of the biodiversity in the forest  and also  a good photographer friendly safari driver. Sajid gave us a brief account on the river Ram Ganga and why it is favorite to the Corbett National Park.
        Whether  land or forest ,it’s survival is based on rivers and that is why rivers are known as the cradles of civilization .Even Corbett  depends  on certain rivers .Corbett 's lifeline is river Ganga, and it’s tributary Ram Ganga. In 1936, India's first national park, Haily National Park came into existence .It was named as Ram Ganga National Park in honor of Ram Ganga in the 1954 -55 period, and it clearly shows the dependence of Corbett on Ram Ganga. The park was renamed as Jim Corbett National Park after the death of Jim Corbett. Apart from Ram Ganga, there are other two rivers also irrigate Corbett. Kozi River is another lifeline, which is active only during rainy seasons.
                                 Sona river is another lifeline, it is named as Sona river Wildlife Sanctuary after this river. The Sona river Wildlife Sanctuary is an important part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve which is an integral part of the Corbett National Park. Apart from this, tributaries of Ram Ganga, like Mandal and Palaine, have maintained the biodiversity of Corbett. The rare species of Masheer Fish, the Gharials, the otter, various kinds of tortoises, crocodiles, are also living along  these rivers.
Elephants in Ram Ganga river

    According to the IUCN(International Union For Conservation Of Nature) Gharials are  Critically Endangered species and are considered to have a total number of survivors in the world below 250 and many of them are having their homes in these rivers. The  wildness of corbett opens up hopes and expectations as we move  forward to  explore much more .Elephants are the symbols of Dhikala. Elephants grazing in the vast grass fields of Dhikala, Sal trees in arch form , intertwining twigs c and elephants walking under them was a framed dream. But the dreams were beyond this ,and it was to see the tigers in the land of Corbett, to see the descendants of heroes and heroines of the so called shikar stories . Sajid testified that Corbett had not been having cannibals there for some years.
           He remembered the last man-eating tiger was shot in 2012. A few pictures of Khaleej Fesant ,a bird of the poultry category, was seen while crossing the river .On the way a gypsy driver gave some signal ,and when reached closer the two drivers spoked something The gypsy leaped in first gear, and Saajid told in between that Paru was spotted at the river side. Paru aka Parvathy is the most famous tigress in Corbett. There are eight tigers in the Dhikala Zone.

         Parvathi is the most famous in the Dakala Zone. After some time we saw the parked gypsy and together a few more of them. I couldn’t control my enthusiasm so I asked the first person I saw about Paru. The enthusiastic explanation from them that she passed the river with a bleeding face was a shock to my excitement. The scene must have been of   aftermath of a hunt . Felt disappointment,  a visual treat had been missed in a matter of few minutes.It was a close call

Be at the right time at the right place or wait for the right time to happen is the law of the forest. Sightings  in the ghat are like that, especially  tiger sightings. Previous experiences always testify the same. My past jungle trails have shown me that  tiger either  walks one step ahead or one step behind me.The tiger always showed its presence only through its pugmarks and fresh scats. Between all these our paths crossed  in the wilds of  Karnataka and Tamilnadu .But it took quite a few trips. It is not easy for someone like me to get to Corbett which is far away from Kerala. Will you disappoint me Jim’s tigers?

          Saajid knew I was disappointed ,so he told me ”We will see Paru today evening itself , and we will see all the eight tigers in the zone within next four days," .Sajid's words seemed to be formal words of comfort, but that still gave me relief and this was the only choice I had. Next Safari is at 2.30 in the noon  till 6.30in the evening.We are now the inmates of  Dhikala. We were ready at 2.00 pm itself  and came near the gypsy. This is also  the time when  dust can be a  serious problem here. Masks and caps were there  t to protect ourselves. Other preventive measure were also adopted to protect the gears .Sajid started the car with a temptating question” want to see Paru”?
This time the guide named Dhyani joined the team. Dhyani’s love for the wild made him leave his  job in a private firm in  Delhi and  presently pursuing his  work as a guide here . Dhyani assured  us about the sighting of  Paru today .We wandered through savannah and river side to get some shots of elephant herds .Sajid told that  we have  go to the swimming pool at about four .When summer comes Ram Ganga becomes thinner. Separated from the flow of the river, some pits will be filled with water. Tigers and some other small animals used to  quench their thirst  from here .The largest of such places is  known as the swimming pool, "If we don’t go now we won’t get a good parking place to get a good view,” Sajid reminded us

We reached there by 4.30pm and there were other vehicles too. Sajid parked Gypsy in a vantage point to get the best possible vantage point to get  photographs that could capture the beauty  of the area. I realised that this was the best  position to capture with my single focal length prime lens that is unable to further zooming in or zooming out . Continuous contact with visiting  photographers, and thanks to  his keen observation skill,sajid knew the requirements of the photographers. It has been 45 minutes, and there were no hopeful movements. The camera was focused to the birds in the nearby trees to get rid of the  boredom. "It will happen in half an hour, Dhyan and Sajid combined with their explanations, Paru had crossed the river in  the morning,and will be returning   to the pool for her drink  and bath".
          My imagination was running wild of excitement and I had already started seeing  the tiger having bath  in the water lit by the golden rays of setting sun and another 15 minutes had passed. Suddenly there was a  commotion from deep inside the forest,the cries of monkeys and deers, it is an alarm call by the animals when they feel  presence of tiger. I could see my dream come closer to me Sajid cautioned me to keep my  camera rolling. Next few minutes, I could see many fingers from nearly vehicles pointed towards a tunnel  that opened in to the pool.I suppose Paru is here, all but us had seen her , we are not in a position too see her vividly  from the angle I was standing ,the atmosphere was suddenly filled with  the sounds camera shutters that continuously working in high speed mode .

 Tigers in  woods are, according to the availability of water and food for a day,may have to wande for  miles.The male tigers are strict in keeping territories , but when the food is abundant at times, a little exception is done. Many experts believe that tigers lead a solitary life ,but India’s Tiger Man Valmik Thapar in his book ‘Secret Life of Tigers’ has made  many observations and testimonies of the family life led by them.
           On the other hand  Paru enters with a style , sat on a rock for about two minutes and started licking water in a meditative mood , then stood up to cool off herself. I captured the dream moments in the camera. My old 60D camera with 400mm 5.6 couldn’t compete with the latest lenses. But it did not reduce my enthusiasm of witnessing the imaginary  frames which had crossed realms of my mind and was happening right  in front of me. After staying in water for a while  with just  head and tail above the surface  for  a minute she then swam gradually to the other side, and she did not care  about the men in the vehicles watching her and  cameras  tracking her. The cameras keep tracking until she walked slowly and hid in the grass.
     It was a good start to me with Paru . Next day in the morning we were glad to witness another female tiger at the at the grassland, busy  in hunting her breakfast. She was crouching behind the bushes targeting the deers in the open field.After a tiring try she gave up and moved to another side. After how many attempts does the tiger succeed in hunting ? Tigers are generally silent creatures, especially while catching the prey, and the tigers do not frighten them with loud noise as they are usually portrayed  in some movies. The tigers are very much a silent animal.Once they locked their prey,the hunting method is to crawl over to their preys silently  and jump on them.
      Tigers make calls, probably the very loud calls, in the breeding period inorder to communicate with its mate.The loud courtship call of male tigers attract female tigers. Sajid and Dhyani were both happy,it was already the second tiger in the morning session itself.  After the tiger sighting in the grassland  ,Sajid had an intution to go to the pond area and just if were to find a thirsty tiger, as the pond is a potential drinking spot of tigers in the area, we agreed with him with a big yes when he shared his thought . The result was an unbelievable sight ,there the gentle  male tiger of Corbett ,one of the two males in dhikala area. He was returning  after drinking session . I took as many sudden shots as possible and in between he turned around and gave a pose for a few seconds ,as if  knew he is being photographed, and walked away in his gentle style. It was really unbelievable for me, I had  saw three tigers in two days ,the most magnificent sightings  I could ever have.. 
Sajid fixed our next target in the  morning itself ,it was 'Bachawala Tiger',a mother tiger with two cubs. Both Sajid and Dhyani were making  plans. This  safari made us witness the  tiger tracking expertise of both of them. We spent a one and half hour with the elephants, as the morning sun gradually  warms up, the possibility of mother and  cubs coming  out of its hiding place is really high .We photographed  the elephants crossing the Ramganga river in the morning and started pursued our  tiger  trails.We carefully observed all sounds and signs and moved very slowly. Sajid stopped the car and pointed to  the footprints that were carved in the dusty soil, big and small .

       The foot prints were seen along the edge of the path for a short  distance and then vanished. Roads are sidelined with tall bushes. And so we guessed that the tigers must have gone beyond the bushes to the pond and we felt  there are chances to see the mother and cubs were high. Gypsy speeded up to the pond and it took 15 minutes to reach there. Another safari vehicle was parked  there in front of us and they signaled us to reduce the volume of our vehicle and to keep silence,someone from the vehicle  pointed to the left of the road .As we looked closer we could see golden colour and black stripes moving in the bushes and Sajid whispered ”Bachevaala” They are trying to cross the road.
          I realised that I couldn’t capture anything with my  400mm prime lens as they were very close. I suddenly replaced the lens with Tamaron 150-600 mm zoom lens and put the maximum wide angle .That time was enough for me to prepare for the shot. The mother,  looked at both sides of the road and made sure it’s safe and entered the road alone,keeping  the cubs safe behind the bushes . We were ready tocapture a family photo of  mother and two cubs together and planned for such a shot ,but the mother was playing a safe game,she had different  plans.
She kept moving through the middle of the road  with confident steps, the proud mother of corbett national park ,she walked ahead of us and took a deviation towards the pond at the opposite side of the road from a point very near to us  .The tigers are in the top position of food chain and  thus doesn’t have enemies in the wild , they only have the role of hunters. Their ecological importance is to control the number of herbivores in the forest  to maintain  an ecological  balance of the  ecosystem.

     Tigers have the confidence  in  their strength and have a clear undrstanding that they have no enemies in their kingdom,that they used to stroll in jungle  in open  tracks without any fear. Now it was the turn  for cubs, the first cub crossed the road without giving enough chance to us,  the second cub took a sudden move without  giving  much time to get a good shot,it crossed the road hurrily, “it’s a girl she is a bit shy “said Sajid. Three of them by now  reached the other side and  will be there in the pond at anytime.As the bushes around was very long ,more than a man’s height we couldn’t see the moves of the tigers. All eyes were in the pond and in the next few minutes  the mother tiger emerged from bushes.
          She watched the surroundings very carefully and then moved towards the pond , she gazed  into her reflection on the water for a few minutes like a mirror image.She then started drinking  in her own royal way  and then returned back to the path she had came from.The little one, as if it  was waiting for its turn,arrived then and  started drinking. Sajid and Dhyani are sure that it’s a boy., they both observed that the cub is developing the body language of a male tiger in his behaviour.
         Now its the turn of next cub(Most probably the girl) she came into the pond as fast as possible and rushed back. It was all on a sudden ,as if drinking for the sake drinking. It seemed like she was scared of us. My wish was to capture the picture of the whole tiger family drinking water together, but we are not the ones who frames the laws of forest.It was just our third day in Corbett and we already saw six of the tigers,both Sajid and Dhyani looked at us with pride .In the Dhikhala zone,according to statistics, there are  a  total of 8 tigers including two kids. Everybody was happy as we completed the third day of our trip successfully. On the final day last safari we were to have was only in the morning session as we will be saying goodbye to Jim Corbett National Park and leaving to Ramnagar in the afternoon. 
                As we are strictly directed  to arriveat the main gate before five ,things may not go as planned ,safari will be like a farewell .But I don’t have any regrets ,Corbett had given me much more than I expected.The ambience of the  last day was just usual, sightings of elephants and  some birds transformed mood to another level.
                        Afternoon is the return journey from dhikkala, we were all in a mood to say farewell. I realised gone are the days,the days of lifetime memories,magical sightings and minblowing experiences .The tiger trails in the land of Jim corbett, the elephant scapes in the savannas of dhikala some rare birds that gave me a glimpse to my camera. Even so , I have to go, I must to go just to come back again. When we crossed about half the distance ,the alarm calls again, chitals, monkeys and birds made their chorus ,the entire forest is echoed with the wild orchestra,and the is moving inside the forest area parallel to our road,giving us a clear indication that tiger is moving inside parallel to our way . During the journey Sajid told us that this was the territory area of another male tiger.

         Chances are there to pursue our tiger trails again. On the way  saw a hornbill, as it was not expected in Corbett I tried to take some pictures but was in vain. I couldn’t get a clear image as it was hiding behind the branches of the trees.Left the place and moved on,  within another kilometer we saw a vehicle parked on the way, the men in the vehicle  told  us that a big huge male tiger appeared on the road and and moved to bushes just a second ago and they have been waiting him to reappear.A just miss sighting, the hornbill made it to miss.We have no time to wait. Rest of the views in Corbett has to be kept for the next trip, there forest is a never ending shore of views. As we go deeper and deeper in this  magical world,we will discover much more and all the  discoveries  will tempt us more towards the jungle….A traveller will keep all his travels for the forest….