Corbett National Park


In the resplendent Terai belt at the foothills of the western Himalayas, with habitat ranging from riverbank forest to mountaintop, climate from cool to torrid monsoons, are ecological niches for a huge array of flora and fauna and the creatures to fill them—India’s oldest national park and one of its finest.

Top among these in the biological scheme as well as worldwide interest is the beautiful and endangered Bengal tiger. Corbett was named after the famous hunter-naturalist who became a leader in the fight to save tigers from extinction. Project Tiger, an Indian initiative with worldwide support to protect tigers from the many threats to their survival and to set aside habitat for them, was started here by Indian conservationists working with the World Wild Fund for Nature. Here tigers are seen frequently but not easily or predictably, being wary, secretive, and well-camouflaged against the dense background of woods, grass, and bamboo thickets they prefer.

Corbett is their ideal habitat: thick jungle (one reason they are hard to see), water—the Ramganga River flows through the reserve—and plentiful prey. These include rufous-tailed hares; porcupines; peafowl; wild boars; armored (but not impregnable) Indian pangolins; ghoral or goat-antelopes; langur and rhesus monkeys which alert the whole jungle with frantic alarm calls if they spot a tiger or leopard; and four kinds of deer—barking, sambar (largest Asiatic deer), hog, and large herds of chital, considered the most beautiful deer in the world.

Tigers are opportunistic feeders and avail themselves of all these. They also feed on small rodents, fish, crocodiles, turtles, crustaceans, frogs, locusts and, in an emergency, domestic animals. They have even been known to kill much larger animals such as buffalo, and a pair of tigers was once observed bringing down an elephant. (Tigers usually stay to eat whatever they kill, covering an over-large meal with leaves and guarding it for later consumption.) Corbett’s enormous boars, up to 220 pounds (100 kg), can give them a tussle, and a large male can kill a tiger.

Leopards are mainly in hilly areas but sometimes venture into the lower jungle. Here also are smaller feline varieties such as jungle, fishing, and leopard cats; sloth bears which dig for termites and ants along the roadsides early and late; jackals; yellow-throated martens; Himalayan civets; Indian gray mongeese; even playful swift otters. Rarely, dholes (wild dogs) and Himalayan black bears are seen.

Elephants, several hundred of them here, are lords of the jungle, and gather in large herds in summer.

Birds are many and varied—more than 580 species including 17 kinds of woodpeckers, more than in all of Europe, crested serpent eagles, handsome black-winged kites, Pallas’ fish-eagles, great flocks of blossom-headed parakeets, and familiar-looking red jungle fowl—ancestors of all domestic fowl. Nightjars and owls call at night.

Formidable Indian pythons can kill a chital deer. Rare long-nosed, fish-eating, gharial crocodiles were saved from extinction by captive breeding and release in the Ramganga River here.

Best chances of seeing a tiger are to come late in the dry season—April to mid-June—and go out with mahouts and elephants for several days. (If you see pugmarks, the elongated egg-shaped toes are females’, the round, circular ones, males’.)

 Tigers’ apparently conspicuous coloring and markings are perfect camouflage in the brushy undergrowth where they stalk, exploding from cover to bring down prey as large as a young elephant or wild cattle weighing a ton or more in a single 30-foot (9-m) bound. It’s not unusual for a tiger to consume 70 pounds (32 kg) a night, covering the carcass and returning to dine on it until it’s gone. Only about a third of hunting attempts are successful.

Tigers’ apparently conspicuous coloring and markings are perfect camouflage in the brushy undergrowth where they stalk, exploding from cover to bring down prey as large as a young elephant or wild cattle weighing a ton or more in a single 30-foot (9-m) bound. It’s not unusual for a tiger to consume 70 pounds (32 kg) a night, covering the carcass and returning to dine on it until it’s gone. Only about a third of hunting attempts are successful.

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