Traversing the same trails, living in the same stone rest-houses as Jim Corbett and other shikaris in the Himalayas- in search of the same thing; the tiger. Looking at records from 1925 to our experiences as part of the tiger-monitoring team.
The resounding cackles of the great slaty woodpeckers on the huge sal trees at the Jhaulasal field station woke me up on my first day in the Haldwani forest division. I immediately stepped out to catch a glimpse and was treated to the golden sun rising over the rolling hills of the bhabhar stretching till as far as the eye could see.
The landscape is best described by EA Smythies whose story of a tiger hunt gone wrong I found in an old silverfish-eaten book from 1925 titled â€˜Big Game Encountersâ€™. He writes, â€œwhere the first rampart of the Himalayas without warning leaps out of the great alluvial plain of northern India to form a broken medley of ridges and foothills, cut up by deep ravines and boulder torrents. Here in the sub-tropical vegetation, gigantic creepers, the sambhur swarm in their natural habitat, and nightly the boulder-beds, path and firelines are patrolled by the great carnivora seeking their meat from Godâ€™.
This part of â€˜the submontane forests of the United Provincesâ€™ was celebrated as the â€˜famous Riala beat of Jhaulasal shooting blockâ€™ which several keen hunters of the Indian royalty and erstwhile British Raj had visited from all over the globe and bagged â€˜fine beastsâ€™. This region is now referred to as the Jhaulasal range of the Nandhaur wildlife sanctuary and is well-protected by the law, providing a safe haven to all the inhabitants of this terai-bhabhar landscape.
In the pre-independence era, organising a tiger hunt was not only a measure of a sportsman but also was used as a tool to gain political mileage, forge relationships and seek favours. Maharajas and governors would organise these tiger-hunts in their territories for visiting â€˜important visitorsâ€™ and the success of the hunt often influenced relationships and socio-political ties. In another chapter, well-known government and military officials visit Jhaulasal for another tiger shikar and are â€˜charged time after time by an infuriated tigressâ€™ around the Kalaria nala- the very nala which our forest rest house overlooked.
S Vaidya further illustrates this fact in his book â€˜Ahead Lies the Jungleâ€™ published in the 1950â€™s. He writes, â€˜when you go for a shoot with the Maharaja you can be absolutely certain that a tiger is in the forest you have entered- the arrangements are made so perfectâ€™. â€˜The maharaja recounted with obvious relish the tiger shoot he threw for Lord Linlithgow, the British Viceroy, during the early days of the warâ€™.
A century later
It was a surreal experience to be staying under the same wooden roofs, surrounded by the same stone walls and walking the same paths that were trodden upon by the likes of Symthies, Wodsworth and other sahibs several decades earlier- in search of the same quarry; the beast of shadow and light, the tiger. How much has changed- yet so little! The only difference in the methods of capturing the tiger being polar opposites- their bolt-action rifles were replaced by the newest technology of motion-sensor camera traps that we placed across the forest. This was done in order to ascertain the tiger population of the region which would aid the speciesâ€™ conservation.
In order to effectively extrapolate the number of tigers in the region, a contour-blind grid is superimposed on the map and each grid is to hold a set of two cameras- one on either side of the potential tiger path in order to capture both the flanks of the feline as it crosses. Like our fingerprints, the stripes on a tiger are unique to an individual and can be used to identify individuals.
This procedure of setting camera traps took us across the mountainous region, through sal and pine forests, across stony riverbeds and scree covered ravines. As we made our way back after ascending the topmost ridge of â€˜sau-footiyaâ€™ we paid more attention to the sounds of the jungle around us, our dayâ€™s work being done. The calls of the parakeet slowly gave away to the the maddening monotony of the common hawk cuckoo which, as twilight faded was interspersed with the chuck-chuck-chuck calls of the nightjar. A lapwing from the ravine to the west relentlessly screeched â€˜did-you-do-it-did-you-do-it?!â€™ Maybe the leopard-cat whose footprints dot the riverbed was raiding the lapwing’s nest. Further along, despite the racket that our feet made on the dry sal leaves, we spotted a large sloth bear in the dimming light who seemed surprised at our intrusion; turning tail and bounding through the forest, the black coat of fur flapping along his rippling sinews.
Over the next few days, we traversed the length and breadth of the forest climbing up smooth rock-cut gorges, hiking through liana-covered trees and hydrating at small pockets of tranquil turquoise blue waters- bluer than the sky and yet crystal clear. Several silver mahseer fry and plecos swam in carefree abandon in these waters, their striped bodies and orange tipped tail contrasting vibrantly against the water.
From the â€˜sau-footiyaâ€™ ridge you could get an uninterrupted view of the sanctuary; first undulating then gently rolling and finally flat with a river of molten silver snaking through the forest in varying shades of green and gold.
The Legacy of these Stomping Grounds- Corbett, Ibbotson,Â and Champion
The bordering range of Champawat is where Jim Corbett shot the infamous man-eater of Champawat in 1907, who was allegedly responsible for 436 human deaths according to some sources. (tiger scientists often dispute this fact on the grounds of the duration of the attacks and vast geographical area making it seem improbable- but nothing has been conclusively proven yet) One can imagine why it took the better part of eight years to track and finally put an end to this tiger, the inaccessibility of the terrain augmented by the elusive, almost phantom-like behaviour of the bhabhar tigers. Had it not been for the footage captured by the camera traps, we would have no idea about the magnitude of movement of these tigers- freely roaming these jungles throughout the day and night. One tiger expressing his curiosity by pawing at the camera and almost touching his liquid eyes into the lens!
Another interesting bit of the ecological history of the country is that this is also the same forest where probably the worldâ€™s first wildlife photographer and definitely the worldâ€™s first â€˜camera-trapâ€™ photographer, FW Champion was the divisional forest officer. Using a single-exposure medium format camera in 1920â€™s he managed to capture some of the most beautiful frames of tigers, bears, honey-badgers and so on- also publishing the famed books â€˜The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadowâ€™ and â€˜Tripwire for a Tigerâ€™. He recounts in the 1925 book his encounters with wildlife while trying to photograph them, never carrying a weapon- which he believed led to an air about oneâ€™s self and ego.
Furthermore, he was succeeded by Sir William Ibbotson as the divisional forest officer of the region, Ibbotson the dear friend of Jim Corbett who was so oft mentioned and immortalized in Corbettâ€™s books. In the visitor- journal of the Chorgalia forest rest house there is an entry by Ibbotson waiting on Corbett- unfortunately, I got to know of this only after I had left the landscape.
I shall write a sequel to this on the incredible engineering of the forest rest houses of the region and how they were made â€˜elephant-proofâ€™ and still stand strong over a century and a half later!
PS: The photographs in this article do not do any justice to the landscape- they are all from the mobile phone as I was unable to carry a camera – was nursing a broken collar-bone at the time.
Do it yourself!
Parts of this region fall in the tourism zone of the Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary- bookings for which (for the Jhaulasal and Amlakheda field stations can be made with the Haldwani forest dept-Â (Tel: 05946-220002, 09411076337).
The park is open from Oct 15 – June 15 (subject to change) every year.
The nearest bus and railhead is Haldwani 32 km away. Haldwani is well-connected by overnight buses and trains from Delhi. Alternatively, you can take a flight to Pantnagar and drive up the 30 km. I prefer the Ranikhet Express (15013) that leaves Delhi at 10:30 pm and reaches Haldwani at dawn.
You could also do a day-trip and not stay in the park- Haldwani has a bunch of decent hotels. Also, it may be difficult to walk inside the park, however, tourist safaris are available.