Jan 15

CORBETT IN WINTERS

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One of the heaviest monsoons, especially the early incessant showers, of our times had left the writing on the wall for a severe winter.  The winter is probably the best time to view Corbett landscape in its entirety.  The landscape, offering multitude of habitats with their unique floristic and faunistic diversity spell one of the best seasons for promising wildlife sightings along with plethora of birds and butterflies filling the log.

The mercury in the mornings as well as evenings has already dropped to force everyone to go heavily wrapped with woollens.  The earliest & the heaviest monsoon showers, possibly of our times, induced a trail for one of the biggest tragedies up in the hills especially Kedarnath & Badrinath, and also had its direct impact on Corbett resulting in a total washout of the road networks in all the 04 tourism zones.  Despite all the odds, the tourism zones were opened exactly on their respective timings thereby establishing the credentials of Uttarakhand Govt in terms of their commitment towards wildlife conservation and tourism.  The most important aspect of the whole commitment happens to be the celebration of Wildlife week (01st to 07th October), which had never seen before such an enthusiastic commitment from all the sections of Corbett stakeholders and rightly the schools and the private individuals were felicitated with honour & pride.  Interestingly, the online booking system has brought a professional transparency in the approach towards sensible wildlife tourism as per Supreme Court endorsed guidelines.  Except the initial hiccups, it has so far been smooth and tourism friendly.  The current management deserves a salute for their commitment in its early implementation.  But I do not agree with the phase out policy and it seems that the forest dept. was anxiously waiting for its implementation for a number of years.  This is debatable and I feel that the Chief wildlife warden should have waited for a year or so before taking the final action.  We have believed that the permanent residential facilities are used by the tourists only in case of availability, as these are actually forest inspection bungalows since their inception about 75 years back.  Also the recent disaster in the state has left trails of unemployment and this action has further aggravated the problems and it will bounce back in some form.  The state with the largest PA forest cover should not suffer from such hasty decisions.  The implementation of the eco-sensitive zone has already been seeing a lot of resilience from the locals and I wonder if the tigers will remain safe if they move out of the boundaries of Corbett.

Corbett, the first endeavour of the country to preserve the tiger and its habitats has once again risen to the occasion while establishing its strong conservation oriented credentials.  Nevertheless, the challenges are still mounting.  Corbett, as a supplying base has distributed tigers to adjoining forests and here comes the effect of increased forest occupancy by the tigers, which is the highest in the tiger distribution range countries but unfortunately all these reserved forests, which fall in Corbett landscape lag a mile in giving the protection to the tigers.  I wonder, if we have still learned the lessons from the past mistakes.  I would be the happiest field biologist the day when all these reserve forests have surpassed the budget allocation in comparison to Corbett.   The Ramnagar forest division across Kosi has the distinction of harbouring more than 40 tigers, possibly better than many other tiger reserves in the country as far as the tiger census figures are concerned, lacks the basic paraphernalia.  The situation is even worse in Terai West forest division which forms an excellent corridor for the tigers to spread.  Protecting the tigers beyond the boundaries of Corbett will be the real challenge and more so because of the fact that Corbett is the only tiger reserve, which has shown a sizeable increase in tiger numbers since the launch of the project tiger.

The water level of Ramganga reservoir in Dhikala tourism zone is not receding, another beauracratic glutton, but the Sambhar road, the prime ecotone between river and forest for animals as well as raptors (birds of prey) sightings, has produced its potential right from the day one.   I am sure this rich bio-diverse edge will be restored to its former glory in a few weeks time from now once the water is released from Kalagarh dam.

Late and heavy monsoon showers have enabled many of the water holes to retain water for so long, which has definitely played a vital role in the early pairing of tigers in Bijrani as well as jhirna.  If the welfare factors in the habitat of tigers are in good supply then their breeding can be pre-poned as well as induced.  The movement of the male and female has led to the increased tiger sightings, as the pair gets exposed to their prey for they give the alarm calls and the tiger and tigress are easily tracked.  Both Bijrani and Jhirna have harboured tiger cubs with their respective mothers.  A female with three growing cubs in Jhirna and a female with 04 growing cubs in Bijrani have been regularly sighted by almost 30% visitors to Corbett so far.  Snigdha, Shekhar, Niting, Gagan, Maria, etc., the last two reviewers of The Ranger’s Lodge on Trip Advisor had an awesome sighting of the tigress for more than 25 minutes in Bijrani on 28th November evening safari .  Then a gropu from Route Purple, Gurgaon had an excellent sighting of the same tigress thrice during the safari to Bijrani on the 11th evening.  Believe you me all, 55% of the total inhabitants of The Ranger’s Lodge so far have had tiger sightings either in Bijrani or Jhirna in the last 2-3 months.

Tendu, the Ebony or Beedi leaf tree and Jungle berries (ber) have started fruiting hence one sees sloth bear pugs as well as their dropping next to their colonies.  After a gap of 08 years i was able to capture a sloth bear in my camera in Jhirna while on Safari with Abhijeet Basu who is yet to right his review on the Trip dvisor.   Most of the deer, especially the spotted deer, are in their prime velvety stage of the antler growth and the rubbing off their antlers against the trunk of the trees and bushes has already started.  Please recall the redness in the trunk at 3-4’ of the trunk height.

Jhirna has attained the distinction of harbouring the resident elephant population for quite some time and on every safari they have been regularly sighted to the visitors.  The howling of the jackals has intensified especially in the vicinity of The Ranger’s Lodge and is often heard in cacophony at the bonfire.  The rehabilitation of Laldhang village close to Jhirna has almost completed and the grasslands surrounding it have started showing their potential.   It is now comparable with Dhikala chaurs except themeda  & vetiverria grass spp.  Biologically speaking, this grassland provides ample palatability to elephants, deer besides loads of airborne species.  I am waiting for the next season when the water availability might change the whole dynamics.  As an experiment, habitat management  programme should include one or two bore-wells in the grassland at Laldhang in order to increase the prey density for the tigers to restrict their territory size on the southern periphery.

The birdlife in the whole landscape of Corbett has increased and one can see mixed flocks of Minivets, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, bronzed-winged drongos,  verditer flycatchers,  grey-capped pygmy woodpecker, common woodshrike, both the species of Nuthatches, grey hooded warblers, etc.  This is all because of the fruiting in Ficus species such as ficus glomerata, F. elastica,  and  Schleichera Oleosa or Kusum.  Chestnut-headed bee-eater and blue-tailed bee-eaters have gone back to their parent habitats while blue-bearded bee-eaters have arrived for breeding.  Interestingly this bird has recently become resident, as I had seen one in August close to The Ranger’s Lodge.  This is one of the species of the top canopies besides two species of leaf birds.  Among other top canopied birds, oriental pied hornbills and great hornbills have started “Gackling” their casks thereby indicating their breeding.  One can see flocks of them on Jhirna safaris.

The mid canopied birds such as orioles and woodpeckers have also started breeding.  All the three species of orioles including Corbett specific Maroon Orioles are heard on the jeep as well as walking safaris.  The three species of Flameback and other mid-sized wood peckers have paired for breeding too.  Constant vocalisation and fluttering in the trees attract the visitor attention.   One of the guests had taken a picture of Black stork perching on a tree, which was unique, as I have never seen black stork on the trees other than on riverbeds.  Subsequently, I had the opportunity of clicking Black Stork on a tree in the ringora region of Bijrani tourism zone.  The Ibisbill has been regularly sighted along Kosi river on the eastern periphery and this time there were two individuals unlike the solitary one who has been sighted in Kumeria for ages.

Overall speaking the park is teeming with birdlife.  On a casual interaction with the research team responsible for camera traps, I discovered that there are 20-25 cubs with their mothers, which is an incredible adult to cub sex ratio for any single reserve in the entire distribution range of the tigers.

Among the raptors, Pallas’s Fishing eagle and Changeable hawk eagles have been seen with their chicks.   An interesting sighting by one of the well wishers of Corbett further strengthened my belief that a naturalist is never a perfect naturalist and one gets to learn a lot on every trip to nature.  It is very unusual for the pied kingfishers to make their nests at this time of the year and there was one sighted doing the nest building close to Ringorha Sot about 10 days back.  I have my explanation that the mother might have been busy training the chick for the tedious exercise, as after attaining maturity the chick would undergo this process and I was proved right, as there were two birds doing the same exercise.

Let me also say that the organic Kitchen Garden at The Ranger’s Lodge with seasonal vegetable is teeming with the fresh crop of radish, carrot, turnip, peas, chickpea, Mustard, brinjal, coriander, potato, garlic, onion, etc.  I have made tempting pickle of “Kamraq” an erstwhile delicacy of our childhood memories and this one grows organically in my garden. The fruit is named as Star fruit.  Though wild boars have taken a heavy toll of my vegetable garden but I feel privileged of being raided by wilderness.  I grow vegetables more to provide an alternative habitat to wild ungulates and the left over crop is used for the guest platters at The Ranger’s Lodge.

Look forward to seeing you all at The Ranger’s lodge till the next phase of Corbett.

Regards imran Khan, www.therangerslodge.in

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