The Jim Corbett National Park,mainland Asias oldest,has turned 75 with plans to improve surveillance and protection of the tigers that it has already been conserving in one of the biggest success stories of Project Tiger in India. On Tuesday,it will officially launch its platinum jubilee when all five zones of the park will be opened for the tourist season till mid-June.
The parks tiger population,40 when Project Tiger was launched here in 1973,is now 214 out of the 1,411 Royal Bengal tigers left in the wild in India,according to the 2011 wildlife census. The success story,however,makes these tigers a poachers target; as recently as 2010,poachers were caught trying to set traps for tigers inside the reserve.
The park now plans a new,unmanned anti-poaching surveillance system and a new tiger protection force. The 24-hour surveillance system,part of a project supported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority,will consist of nine unmanned watchtowers with infra-red and thermal cameras. The new,112-strong force is another NTCA initiative; recruitment is in progress.
Three of the nine watchtowers,all fully solar-powered,are already in place. The project will also help gather data on wildlife movement and this will be monitored from a central station located in the reserves Kalagarh area.
These measures are improvements on a defence system that currently involves patrolling by forest guards,with the vulnerable southern region of the reserve patrolled by an existing tiger protection force consisting of former Army men.
Poaching is a very real threat,along with increasing man-animal conflict, says Corbett Park warden U C Tiwari. Last year,five people lost their lives in tiger attacks in the nearby Sunderkal village. These incidents,especially when they get politicised,make people hostile to conservation efforts. Our biggest challenge is maintaining the atmosphere for conservation, he said.
While tigers are the centre of its conservation efforts,the park is also home to a variety of birds,including over 50 species of birds of prey,among them highly endangered vultures,and aquatic animals such as otters,with all three species known to the subcontinent found in the Ramganga river that flows within the park.
The parks largely unexplored floral diversity includes many rare species of orchids.
It also has one of the healthiest populations of elephants in India,and is one of the last remaining strongholds for highly endangered gharial that flourishes in the Ramganga. While the male-to-female ratio of elephants in Indias reserves is as mismatched as 1:20 in some southern states,Corbetts 700 elephants are split 1:2,making it a viable population according to the warden.
The parks growth has come at a price. A construction boom is on in areas around it to meet the increasing rush of tourists every year. The influx has affected the surrounding ecology in a way that has generated a set of ironies common to most tourist hotspots. Villages on the fringes have to rely on a single pump for water for daily use,while hotels next door exploit this scarce resource mindlessly to maintain their lawns and swimming pools.
Near Ramnagar that lies between the reserve and the Kosi river,the stillness of winter nights is often disturbed by loud Punjabi hip-hop music played from dance halls at roadside hotels,even as guards warn visitors not to venture out after dark as wild animals including tigers are known to come out on the roads. This happens particularly in summers,when water sources dwindle inside the reserve.
Visitors are yet to exceed the parks annual carrying capacity of 240,000 85-90 per cent of this visited last season but their increasing numbers have still put considerable stress on the surrounding ecosystem that is so vital to the parks existence,says Corbett Park director Ranjan Misra.
The resorts and hotels located close to the park are not under the jurisdiction of the park administration but they are a concern as they cause noise and light pollution,and pollute the adjoining Kosi river which is essentially Corbett landscape. Increased traffic on the roads is a danger to animals which often cross over, he says.
The park authorities have made several attempts to include the surrounding areas under the parks control as a buffer,Misra said. Tigers are excellent breeders but we need to provide more space where young tigers,which are forced out from core territory as they grow,can move to, he said.
If three surrounding areas as identified by the authorities are added,the park will grow by 1,000 sq km to about 2,400 sq km.
The region adjoining Corbett,and Uttarakhand as a whole,needs strong policies to govern growth if it is not to fall victim to the commercial pressures that threaten its forests,says Sumantha Ghosh,a conservationist who has been closely associated with the park for more than a decade,and who has founded Mahseer Conservancy to protect the golden mahseer,a fish that is the best known inhabitant of the Ramganga.
There has been a growth in unsustainable tourism,especially in the last two years. When I first came here,all hotels used to employ experts who could guide visitors and explain things to them. Now almost 95 per cent have no guide in their employ, he says. Their interests are different and there is no part for the local community and its culture in such ventures. The parks proximity to Delhi and its corporate culture is a reason such establishments have come up.
Beyond the tiger
Much more needs to be done in documenting the parks biodiversity and focusing conservation efforts on species largely ignored,say park authorities and conservationists.
Since it was established,the park has seen the local extinction of at least three species Indian fox,wild dog and swamp deer due to unrestricted hunting before that was banned,and habitat destruction by activities such as farming on surrounding areas.
The presence of these animals in the parks early days can be seen from the Shikar journals of the time but they havent been spotted at the reserve and have been declared locally extinct, says the warden.
The latest large-scale loss is that of the hog deer. The submergence of more than 80 sq km of the park,following the commissioning of the Kalagarh reservoir for which construction started in 1964,has left it the most threatened animal in the reserve with only about 300 remaining from a population once thriving.
Of the five zones,Jhirna is open to visitors through the year,Bijrani opens in mid-October,and Dhikala,Durgadevi and Batanbasa in mid-November. On Tuesdays occasion,Chief Minister B C Khanduri and other prominent figures will be present.
1936: The park,then called Haleys Park and spanning 323.75 sq km,opens on August 8
1964: Construction begins on Kalagarh reservoir
1966: To compensate for submergence caused by reservoir,land from adjoining area added,taking total area to 520.82 sq km
1973: Project Tiger launched in Corbett Park
1991: More areas added as buffer zone to protect core forest area,taking total to 1,300 sq km
2010: Park declared a tiger reserve,its core areas a critical tiger habitat