By VIJAY JOSHI, Associated Press Writer
CORBETT NATIONAL PARK, India — I would rather be on an elephant than in front of one.
It's no fun when a wild tusker is lumbering toward you, and you are trapped in a Jeep with no choice but to drive in reverse on a muddy, twisting, hilly road flanked by a jungle on the left and a gurgling river to the right.
The heart-stopping encounter with an irritated elephant occurred barely 30 minutes after we had driven into the Corbett National Park — India's finest tiger reserve in the foothills of the Himalayas — in search of the big cats.
At the wheel was a friend, a city lad whose skills in reverse driving were limited to parking between parallel lines. Still, he did an admirable job of driving us — a shaken party of four — backward to safety behind a curve in the forested hill.
The elephant, apparently bored by our lack of sportsmanship, ambled away after a while. We were lucky. Later at a forest lodge — the staging point for tiger safaris — we saw another vehicle that had been gored the same day by a tusker, possibly the one we met. The vehicle displayed two holes in the metal grille in the front. No humans were injured.
But Rajiv Bhartari, the director of Corbett Tiger Reserve, which encompasses the national park, later told us that it is common for wild elephants to confront humans although fatal encounters are unheard of.
Still, he said, we are better off being atop an elephant while in the forest. "Besides, that's the best way to see a tiger," he said.
And nothing can be truer.
Corbett National Park is no Serengeti or Kruger. Unlike those African parks, you won't see hordes of animals under shady trees or watering holes. But tracking and spotting a tiger in the Indian jungle with an experienced guide turned out to be every bit as thrilling as homing in on a pair of cheetahs in the African grasslands.
But more of that later.
Corbett National Park, located in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, epitomizes India's success in saving the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger, the magnificent yellow-and-black striped cat found only in Asia.
A victim of hunting, poaching and human encroachment, the tigers were threatened with extinction when the global Project Tiger was launched in Corbett National Park on April 1, 1973. At the time, the tiger population in the park was 44. Across India, only about 1,800 existed, down from 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century.
Under Bhartari's stewardship, the tiger population in Corbett has increased to about 175. Overall, there are about 3,600 tigers in India but other national parks have not fared as well as Corbett and some reserves have no tigers left.
"Right now, what you see is a glorious Corbett. We have never seen anything like it. (Tiger) sightings are becoming more common," said Bhartari in an interview at the Dhikala forest lodge.
It is the largest and most frequented of the 12 lodges, operated by the state forest department, inside the 200-square-mile Corbett National Park.
The park is named after Jim Corbett, a British colonial army colonel who was born in 1875 in Nainital, not far from the sanctuary, and lived virtually all his life in India until 1847. An ardent hunter, he gave up killing for sport after witnessing a carnage of water fowl by three army officers, and dedicated his life to preserving wildlife.
The accommodations in Dhikala lodge are basic but comfortable and adequate. Only vegetarian food is available because meat leftovers and their scent attract carnivores.
Still, the lodge, protected by an electrified perimeter fence, can't be beaten for its location in the heart of the park, overlooking the Ramganga river where tigers sometimes come to bathe and drink in summers.
Visitors to Corbett National Park — about 160,000 come every year — usually spend two days at the lodge. Lodge officials arrange elephant and Jeep safaris that set out twice a day — once at dawn and again before dusk when most animals come out to hunt or forage.
Elephant safaris are highly popular and get booked days in advance. We were slow in booking and had to settle for the Jeep.
Our first day proved to be fruitless. Riding in an open Jeep, we crisscrossed the dirt tracks across the dry brown grasslands and stopped at a spot where a tiger was seen a day before.
But patience proved futile and as dusk began to approach we hurried back to the lodge before the curfew. Big mistake.
M.C. Klaarwater, a young Dutch engineer on his second trip to India, lingered and came across a frolicking tiger, leaping over the grass, its black-tipped tail up in the air. He even had pictures to prove it.
That evening M.C. proved to be the most popular man at the lodge with all residents lining up to see the pictures on his digital camera.
With renewed vigor, despite near freezing temperatures, we set out at dawn the next day to the same spot and parked ourselves. The stillness of dawn was soon broken by jungle sounds.
To us they were just sounds. To our guide, the language was jungle telegraph: a Sambhar deer was alerting its herd and another species, a barking deer, had issued its warning as well.
"It's definitely somewhere here," the guide whispered, urging everybody to keep still and quiet. As the minutes ticked away, The warning calls became more frequent. Soon, the white-and black furred Langur monkeys, perched atop tall Sal trees, joined the chorus with loud "keeee... keeee." They could clearly see the tiger from their vantage point.
Tension mounted as the monkeys' shouts became cacophonous. The tiger was certainly there, but where was it going to emerge from? Suddenly, we all saw a flash of orange and black in the thick shrubs under the trees.
Cameras trained and eyes peeled we tracked the blurred patches of galloping color. The rustling through the dry bushes was loud and clear.
A gasp went up among the assembled audience — many more people had arrived by then in Jeeps including M.C. — as the majestic tiger bounded through the forest, onto the road in front of us, 50 yards away, before disappearing into the foliage again.
A young woman squealed with excitement. Men said "wow" in hushed tones, and immediately began to look at their camera screens to see if the moment was trapped in digital magnificence.
I did too. And realized with great chagrin that I had set the camera on manual and shot on extreme slow shutter speed. The picture turned to be shaky and blurred. M.C., on the other hand, wisely relied on automatic and got a series of terrific images. He was once again a popular guy back the lodge.
Never mind. What I saw that day through my camera's viewfinder will be printed in my memory forever.