RAMNAGAR, India — The sun has started to rise over the arrow-straight road that heads north from Ramnagar. Beside me, Isher is pushing his ancient Maruti Gypsy jeep to the limit. He swerves to barely avoid the silhouette of another scampering jogger and slams on the brakes.
“Jungle cat,” he hisses through the fog of his bidi cigarette. He wags his finger in the direction of an emaciated tabby skulking through the undergrowth. Nice try, Isher, I think, suddenly doubtful as to the proficiency of my local guide. This is not the feline I’m after.
Mercifully, the fauna is about to get a lot more interesting. Ten minutes down the road we arrive at the main gate of Corbett National Park: a vast tract of protected land straddling a broad valley 150 miles north of New Delhi. Bound by the Siwalik Hills to the south and the outriders of the High Himalaya to the north, this is India’s oldest, and best-loved, protected area, and somewhere within its forest and grassland wild tigers roam.
This fact is, in itself, no small claim, for the king of the jungle is having a bad time of things. Hunted to supply the Asian medicine market, killed by farmers looking to protect their herds, and squeezed from all sides in what will soon overtake China as the most populous country on earth, the tiger is locked into an inexorable decline. According to the last countrywide census, there are just 1,550 tigers left in India, out of a global population of fewer than 4,000. Over the last decade alone, the creatures have retreated from 40 percent of their range, while two of the country’s national parks, Sariska and Pana, have declared themselves emptied of tigers in the last five years.
Some people are understandably wary of tourism that appears to make a commodity of an endangered species. After all, it’s human appetites — for land, skins, and exotic remedies — that have pushed the tiger to the brink. Yet the tourist destination I’m entering is a rare conservation success story in the midst of the bleak general picture. Between 2002 and 2011, while the national tiger population plummeted by 60 percent, numbers in Corbett have been creeping upward.
“Corbett is flourishing,” says Julian Matthews, chairman of travel operators for Tigers (www.toftigers.org), an organization campaigning to encourage responsible tourism as a means to safeguard the tiger’s future. “It’s got one of India’s highest densities of tigers, an estimated 214 according to the last census in 2011, up from 165 in 2006.”
This may not be the only place in India to catch a glimpse of this beautiful animal, but in Corbett the odds are stacked in your favor. We head west, bouncing our way through stands of sal trees. Everywhere wildlife abounds: spotted deer graze at the roadside, black-faced langur monkeys cavort through the canopy, and down in the crystal waters of the streams, crocodiles eye catfish big as torpedoes.
It’s lunchtime when we roll into Dhikala, an unobtrusive scatter of khaki-colored hutments surrounded by a perimeter of electric fencing. This is Corbett’s inner sanctum, home to accommodations from dormitories to simple lodges, and a base for further exploration.
Over by the restaurant, other visitors have gathered on a promontory overlooking the Ram Ganga floodplain, where a group of wild elephants — “tuskers’’ in the local vernacular — can be seen far away feasting on the long grass. Predictably, all chatter revolves around the day’s sightings. A group of Finns exult in the tigress that padded alongside their vehicle, an American couple swoon over their sighting of a mother with three cubs, and two men from Bangalore brag of four separate spots in one morning.
Inspired and envious in equal measure, I spend the next two days trying to emulate their good fortune. On forays through mist-wreathed landscapes of rivulets, acacias, and golden savannah, Isher drives and smokes his bidis as I stare hopefully at bushes and clumps of elephant grass every time he stops to claim he’s spotted something with stripes. On elephant rides, bulldozing an off-road trail down to the river plains, I sit on a howdah and strain my ears to listen for the guttural serenade of the tigers’ mating call.
There’s no shortage of distractions — a scurrying wild boar, a skittish herd of sambar deer, a symphony of exotic birds — but there are no tigers.
One legend of this area would have appreciated my frustration more than most. In his early years, Colonel James Edward Corbett was the go-to hunter of the Kumaon, a man revered for tracking and dispatching the man-eating cats that intermittently terrorized the pilgrim trail to Badrinath.
In retirement, he would become a celebrated author and avid conservationist, and in 1956 India’s first national park, founded 20 years earlier, was rechristened in his honor.
“This is the way it goes, my friend,” says Isher, as we trundle back to Ramnagar after two days of fruitless search. “I know people who have come here 15 times and never seen a tiger.”
He’s right of course. More than 70,000 tourists will ply these trails this year, and many are destined to return home without encountering the park’s marquee star, their hopes thwarted by dense foliage and the tiger’s stealthy habits.
And yet, back at the park offices, a ranger tells me tigers have been hanging out in a more sparsely forested region in the park’s southern quarter — reason enough, I decide, to return in the early hours to arrange the paperwork for one last furlough. I commandeer Lalit to act as guide, reputed by his fellow drivers to be the best.
Later that morning, we find ourselves in Jirnha, one of the park’s less-trammeled sectors, looking for the clues — paw prints at the roadside, pug marks lying over fresh tire tracks — that signify a tiger’s recent presence. As I feign interest in another inert herd of spotted deer, Lalit finds a sal trunk that has been savaged by huge claws. “This is one of the ways he marks his terr - . . . ” He trails off, looks round. Something in the atmosphere has shifted. A relay of urgent barks and screeches zips through the treetops — an unwelcome visitor has the monkeys spooked. Lalit aims the jeep toward the panic and steps on the gas.
Round a corner, a set of striped hindquarters can be seen sauntering down the track ahead. We are some way distant, but our entry is cumbersome and the vision vanishes almost instantly, apparition-like, blending into the jungle with a slink of back and a swish of tail.
It’s hardly a sighting to enthrall the masses at Dhikala. But it still feels like an enormous privilege to get this small confirmation that the tiger is here, so precious are the few that remain.
Henry Wismayer can be reached at henryjayw@yahoo