The tiger (Panthera tigris) is perhaps the most celebrated of the wild animals of India. It is symbolises the power of Nature and finds an important place in our culture, mythology and legends. It has been worshiped as the guardian and ruler of the forest.
Tigers are believed to have evolved in East Asia (China) about 2 million years ago. They then dispersed to other parts of Asia. There existed eight subspecies of tiger, out of which three have gone extinct.
Today this perfect carnivore is a critically endangered species, though once it roamed freely in most of Asia. India is home to the largest population of wild tigers in the world. There are estimated to be only 5000 to 7500 tigers surviving in the world. Out of these, the subspecies found in the Indian subcontinent, the Bengal tiger has 3000 to 4500 surviving members, more than three-fourths of which are in India.
The terai-bhabar region, including Corbett, was once the best place to find tigers but this habitat has reduced tremendously due to development-induced land use changes.
The tiger has always had a close association Corbett National Park – earlier through the writings of Jim Corbett and other shikaris and later because of the launch of Project Tiger, India’s tiger conservation programme, initiated from the Park’s soil on 1st April 1973.
Tigers hunt deer (preferably sambar but also chital and barking deer) and wild boar. They choose the largest of the prey species since larger prey represents more energy for the effort spent. For this reason the sambar population density is believed to be a good indicator of the presence of tigers. Occasionally, tigers will also attack young of elephants and take smaller species, including monkeys, birds, reptiles and fish.
Adult tigers are usually solitary, except for females with cubs. However, sometimes several are sometimes seen together.
Generally, both female and male tigers maintain home ranges that do not overlap with the home range of another tiger of the same sex. Females have home ranges of approximately 20 sq. km while those of males are much larger, covering 60-100 sq. km. Male home ranges cover the territory of many smaller female home ranges. The male protects his territory and the females within it from competing males.
To mark their territories, tigers use several means of advertising this fact. Urine and anal gland secretions are sprayed on trees, bushes and rocks in various places throughout a particular area. They also make claw marks on trunks of trees. Such markings help avoid physical confrontation since any intruders in the territory recognise the owner’s scent and generally keep out.
Among the large cats in India tigers have the greatest reputation as man-eaters. Several legendary man-eating tigers have been known, especially during the terai-bhabar region. Such tigers have been immortalised through the writings of Jim Corbett. For example, the Champawat tiger is said to have killed 434 people before Corbett finally succeeded in killing it. However, in recent times, with the huge decline in the numbers of tigers, attacks on humans have been relatively rare. Man-eating is usually the result of a tiger’s inability to catch usual prey when it is too old to hunt or if it has an injury.
Being a carnivore and a master predator, the tiger lies on top of the food pyramid. It keeps the population of ungulates under control and thus maintains the ecological balance.
The tiger is an indicator of a healthy wilderness ecosystem. If the tiger is protected, our forests will also live. And forests mean good air and plenty of freshwater, both of which affect our own survival.
The elephant, largest of the land mammals, has been an integral part of the history, mythology, tradition, culture and religion of India. There are three surviving species of elephants in the world, one in Asia and two in Africa. The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is distributed in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Unlike the African species, Asian elephants have been domesticated for thousands of years and have been used in medieval warfare, for temples, and as a working animal.
The Asian elephant was once found throughout south and southeast Asia but now it has been reduced to several scattered populations because of human activities like conversion of forest areas to farming, construction of dams and civil works like roads and canals. Apart from habitat constriction, these wide-ranging animals also face obstruction of their traditional migration routes. Poaching of elephants for ivory is another serious problem that elephants face.
Elephants are notable for their remarkable intelligence and a sharp memory. This is because elephants have the largest brains in the animal kingdom. Males have tusks and such elephants are commonly called “tuskers”. There are also some tuskless males, called “makhnas”. The trunk of an elephant is a most distinct and versatile organ and can be used for feeding and drinking, breathing, trumpeting, herding the young ones and sometimes even for fighting.
Asian elephants live in a variety of habitats. They prefer a combination of grassland, shrubbery, and forest.
Elephants are strictly vegetarian and prefer grasses, leaves, stems of trees, vines, bamboos and shrubs. Sometimes they also enter fields in the villages located near forests and raid crops.
Owing to its large size, and high forage requirements elephants are constantly on the move, searching for food. They undertake long-distance migrations and follow the same seasonal migratory routes generation after generation. However, in recent times the migratory routes have been encroached upon by human activities which has seriously affected their movement.
Elephants are social and live in groups consisting of females and their young and are led by the eldest and most experienced female. Living in herds is useful for collective defence, better care and teaching of young ones and increased mating opportunities. Adult males usually travel alone and associate with female herds for mating.
Corbett Tiger Reserve has about 700 Asian elephants. They are part of the migratory population that also lives in Rajaji National Park. Earlier, there were much fewer elephants in Corbett but their population in the park has increased significantly in recent decades. Although, present throughout the Park, elephants are most easily sighted in Dhikala chaur, Phulai chaur, and near the Saddle Dam.
Corbett has four species of deer. They are the most frequently sighted large mammals in the Park.
Chital (Axis axis) or Spotted deer is the commonest of deer species of Corbett. It is also the most beautiful, with characteristic white spots on its reddish-brown body. Only male chital have antlers that may grow up to 1 m length. These antlers are periodically shed and a new set developed every time.
Chital live in large herds and are usually seen in open grasslands. Grasses form the main food for chital but they also depend on fallen fruits, flowers and leaves from forested areas. They prefer to graze in short grasslands without much cover because in such areas they can watch out for predators like tigers. Tree cover is also required as shelter and source of food.
Chital are most active in early morning and evening and rest in cool places during the heat of the day. They give alarm calls to warn the herd when a potential threat or predator is sensed.
Chital are ecologically important because they form an important prey base for carnivores like leopards and tigers. They also help in dispersal of plant seeds including grasses and also tree and shrub species like amla, ber, etc.
Para or Hog Deer (Axis porcinus) is the rarest of Corbett’s deer. It is closely related to the chital but is smaller in size. Unlike most other deer, the hog deer is not given to leaping over obstacles but instead, it escapes its predators by crouching low, ducking under obstacles. Its limbs are short and its hind legs are longer than the fore legs. This anatomy raises its rump to a higher level than the shoulders.
This species mostly inhabits grasslands, swampy areas and clearings and is usually nocturnal. Unlike chital, hog deer are solitary animals but sometimes feed in small groups. Hog deer face the threat of habitat destruction, especially draining of swampy areas and change in water regimes.
Sambar (Cervus unicolor) is the largest deer found in Corbett. Its body is largely a uniform greyish-brown in colour, except for the creamy white on the backsides and under-tail areas. Males have antlers up to 1 m long that are periodically shed and replaced. Male sambar also have dense manes on their necks.
Sambar are mostly found in dense forests with a gently sloping to steep topography. They are known to reach altitudes as high as 3,700 m. Sambar browse on leaves, berries, fallen fruit, leaves and tender bark of young trees, and also graze on grasses and sedges. These deer are mostly active solitary but may be found in small groups during the mating season.
They let out a loud, repetitive alarm call when they sense a threat. These signals are used by trackers to locate tigers.
Sambar is the most important prey species for the tiger and presence of sambar usually indicates a good tiger habitat.
Kakar or Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntjak) is the smallest of Corbett’s deer.
The body colour is golden tan on the dorsal (upper) side and is lighter on the undersides. Male kakar have short antlers growing on long, bony projections called burrs. In place of antlers, females possess only bony knob-like burrs on their head. Males also have tusk-like upper canine teeth curving sharply outwards from the lips.
Kakar are mostly found in areas having dense vegetation and hilly terrain. They prefer to be close to water-sources. Kakar are omnivorous and feed on herbs, fruit, grass, tree-bark and also birds’ eggs and small animals. They are solitary and quite territorial.
Kakar emit a typical dog-like alarm “bark” when they sense the presence of a predator. Barking may carry on continuously for up to an hour. They are active both during daytime and at night.
They are a prey for tigers, leopards, jackals and pythons.
The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is the other large cat found in Corbett. Compared to the tiger leopards are smaller, more graceful and have a long agile body that has rosettes instead of stripes. It also has the ability to limb trees. Leopards are quite versatile, adaptable to a variety of terrains as well as to a broad range of prey that includes everything from insects and rodents up to large ungulates. Leopards mostly hunt during twilight hours and at night. They also ambush their prey by jumping down from trees.
The leopard’s call is termed as ‘saw’. Sawing can be described as a short rasping vocalisation.
When living near populated areas leopards will attack and kill livestock and domestic dogs. Sometimes, they also attack humans.
In spite of leopards being highly adaptable, they face many problems in survival. This includes habitat destruction, poaching for their skins, and persecution as killers.
There are two species of primates found in Corbett. The Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) is the commonest monkey of the Indian subcontinent. It lives in a wide range of habitats – from plains to the Himalayas at elevations up to 3000 m – and is quite adaptable to humans. Its body is earthy brown in colour and buttocks are reddish. The Rhesus is quite a lively and vocal animal. It lives in large troupes of up to two hundred individuals. Large dominant males (called alpha males) lead these groups. It is omnivorous, and often eats roots, herbs, fruits, insects, crops, and small animals.
Hanuman or Common Langur (Semnopithecus entellus) has an unmistakable appearance - a light body, dark face and a very long tail. It is considered to be sacred in many parts of India and is found in many environments, from desert edge to forests.
Langurs are vegetarian and feed mainly on leaves, buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds. Feeding activity is generally in the early morning and late afternoon.
Like monkeys, langurs too live in troupes led by dominant males. In the trees, they are remarkably agile and can make horizontal leaps of 3-5 m.
Himalayan Goral or Ghural (Nemorhaedus goral) is a goat-like animal that occurs in the Himalayas between 1,000 to 4,000 m. It lives in small groups on sparse mountainous slopes and cliff faces with crevices. It is remarkably sure footed and can move at high speeds even over near vertical terrain. Goral are active at dawn and dusk when they come to feed on grasses, leaves, twigs, nuts and fruit.
Mostly grey to brown in colour, the goral has a lighter coloured ‘bib’ at the base of the neck and sports short, conical, backward-curving horns having irregular ridges. Goral are well camouflaged, and thus are very difficult to spot, especially when they are still.
Wild boar (Sus scrofa) is the ancestor of the domesticated pig that lives in moist forests and scrub. It has long, curved canine teeth (called tusks) that are used for digging food and as weapons. Wild boar feed on roots, tubers, fruits, shrubs, bird eggs, insects, mice, snakes, frogs and carrion. They usually move in groups both at day and night.
The Asiatic Jackal (Canis aureus) is a member of the dog family. It is found in open country, short grasslands and has also adapted to living near human settlements.
It comes out during the night to forage for food. Its omnivorous diet consists of deer fawns, rodents, hares, birds, eggs, reptiles and amphibians and various fruits especially ber and jamun. The jackal is also an opportunistic scavenger, readily raiding garbage bins.
Corbett is one of the few places in India where three species of otter are found existing together. Otters are an important component in the ecology of the Park, especially the Ramganga and its tributaries. Otters are indicators of a healthy river ecosystem. These small carnivores are a part the aquatic food chain and live mostly along riverbanks, spending a lot of their time in water. They make dens among rocks and boulders along perennial streams and rivers.
The species of otters occurring in Corbett Park are Eurasian or Common otter (Lutra lutra monticola), Smooth-coated otter (Lutra perspicillata) and Small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea). Fish forms the majority of the otters’ diet, except in case of Small-clawed otter, which primarily feeds on insects and other invertebrates.
Otters face threat of elimination of habitat due to construction of dams, intensive fishing, quarrying in rivers for stone and gravel and land use changes for agriculture or prawn cultivation. Poaching in the hilly regions of India for otter skins is also a threat.
The great variety of habitat in Corbett is reflected in its impressive diversity in the bird life. Over 600 species, many of them rare and endangered, have been recorded in and around the park. these include nearly fifty kinds of birds of prey that provide a unique character to the avifauna.
This inherent richness in bird life increases
even further during winter with the arrival of numerous migrants – some, like
osprey and ducks, coming all the way from East Africa, Europe and Central Asia.
Winter also brings many Himalayan birds from higher regions who come to take
refuge in Corbett to escape the extreme conditions in the mountains above. These
include many flycatchers, great barbet and the wallcreeper.
Corbett has two of India’s three crocodilian species. It is considered to be one of the best spots to see the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), one of the largest and most endangered crcodilians of the world. It is found only in the Indian subcontinent. It gets its name from the ‘ghara’ or pot like structure on the snout that is present only in males.
The gharial’s slender snout is adapted to eat fish so it does not attack humans or larger mammals. Young gharials may eat invertebrates and insects.
About 100 gharials live in the Ramganga and can be seen swimming in its deep pools or basking in the sun on its banks. These were released as part of the conservation programme for gharials. Though it has been saved from extinction, the gharial is still critically endangered. The main threats are – loss of habitat (fast-flowing rivers) and nesting sites (sandbanks) due to construction of dams and barrages which changes the flowage of water and exploitation of fish by humans (depletion of prey species).
The still waters of Corbett, especially the Ramganga reservoir, are home to the Mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris). Muggers are more general carnivores and take a variety of animals as food. Muggers are also found in Nakatal, Corbett’s only lake.
Corbett is home to many species of freshwater fish. The Ramganga, Palain, Sonanadi and Mandal rivers, provide vital habitat and breeding grounds for them because of moderate temperature, low gradient, presence of deep pools and boulders and gravel on stream beds, and negligible pollution. Fish form a fundamental link in the food chain for many key species like the gharial, otters, fish-eagles, kingfishers, ospreys, storks, fish-owls, egrets, darters and pelicans.
The most celebrated of the fishes is the Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), a large freshwater river fish belonging to the carp family. It has a magnificent appearance – sap green body with bright orange scales. Mahseer is considered to be one of the most prized fish for anglers all over the world.
Clean water, which is increasingly becoming rarer, is the prime habitat requirement for the mahseer. Its population has declined due to loss of habitat. Loss of breeding grounds also poses a threat because mahseer require shallow, clear, well-oxygenated water for spawning, which again is hard to find these days. Decline of mahseer is also due to construction of dams on their migratory routes, obstructing access to favoured spawning areas upstream. The Ramganga is one of the best-preserved rivers for mahseer in India. Other important fish species of Corbett are Goonch (Bagarius bagarius), Indian trout (Barilius bola) and Rohu (Labeo rohita)
Sustainable angling, as opposed to intensive fishing, benefits conservation of prized fishes like mahseer. Angling is allowed in certain areas in the buffer region of Corbett after taking permits from the Forest Department.
Reptiles live in a great variety of habitats. But apart from the gharial and mugger the other reptiles of Corbett have not been studied in great detail. Several species of snakes have been reported from here, including the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) and Indian Cobra (Naja naja). Indian Rock Pythons (Python molurus) are frequently sighted and there also exist several kinds of vipers, kraits and boas.
The Bengal Monitor (Varanus bengalensis) is the most imposing of Corbett’s lizards. The list includes nine other species of Agamas, Geckos and Skinks
Amphibians occupy a wide range of niches from forest floor to freshwater swamp, and from urban areas to mountain torrents. As of now, there are seven species of toad and frog occurring in the Park.