Tiger people: The Corbett Story
Actor, wildlife photographer, advocate of animal rights and UN Ambassador for Migratory Species, Randeep Hooda writes exclusively for HT City, and brings a series of photo essays, THE TIGER PEOPLE , among others, about his meandering experiences in the wild.Updated: Apr 28, 2020 21:10 IST
After travelling to many parks, mostly in central India, with the exception of Dudhwa, finally I was on my way to Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. The king of reserves as it’s often called is also the first Reserve in India established as the Hailey Tiger Reserve, which was later named after the famous hunter and writer who called Choti Haldwani as home. As a child, I was always fascinated by his stories of man-eaters and the description of the time and the jungle terrain and its inhabitants, both the human and the humane. You or your family and friends can access these stories all over again in Jim Corbett’s Omnibus 1 and 2.
As true to many jungle lores I had read, my trip for the terai park turned out be magical in more ways than one. The morning mist putting up its last battle stand against the rays of the sun, though limited vision added to the mystery and the legend. The varied life I saw thriving in the park through the lens and otherwise, will stay with me for some time to come. The mix of habitats set in the crown of hills surrounding the park were breathtaking and daunting. To top it all was to sight the abundant yet shy Corbett tiger.
This happened to be my mother’s first sighting of a tiger in the wild. She had accompanied me on a New Year trip to Dudhwa a couple years ago, where, after many safaris, we didn’t sight much. My mother, Asha Hooda, loves the trees and the breeze and was very enthusiastic about heading to the jungle again after a long time. She cooked some methi parathas for the journey, which were a life saver for the famished jungle party. Upon reaching the FRH after a seven-hour journey, I felt she would skip the evening safari. After guzzling some tea and parathas she was one of the first to jump into the jeep with her jacket, muffler and sun glasses.
It was good that she did because late that evening, just before it was time to head back to the guest house which, made her nostalgic about her father’s house, she not only saw her first tiger but three of them. They came and sat so close to our jeep that it made her feel excited and also extremely uncomfortable. “Hain, ye toh yahin aake baith gaya? Please chalo! Kahin ye gadi ke andar hi na aa jaye,” to see her excitement and understandable daunting by the sighting of one of nature’s supreme magnificence made everything suddenly more worthwhile, which also became a topic of much amusement.
These three were 14-months-old female cubs of Parvali, a careless mother unlike mine, who lost her previous two litters. She now has three daughters — 14-months-old that came and tentatively sat in front of our Gipsy to be marvelled and shot, with a camera, unlike Mr Corbett.
The most fascinating part of Corbett are its Forest guest houses.
Since it is the oldest park in India, the FRH reminds us of the glory of conservation history and much beyond that. If we are not able to access or stay in them, it’ll kill the backbone of the tourist industry on which the livelihoods of the people, and subsequently the survival of the tiger so depends.
Rahul Singh: 40
The college kid looking boss of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Rahul Singh was more than welcoming at the head office of Corbett in Ram intelligent officer cut to the chase on most topics. Upon his much awaited visit to our forest rest house, he was accompanied by his lovely, congenial and becoming wife of an IFS officer who got along with my mother rather well.
His two sweetheart kids, Harsh, 9, (wearing a tiger sweater made by his nani) and Shreya, 11, a budding photographer about to be published in the coffee table book about Corbett, accompanied their parents. They were very curious about the going ons of an actor’s life. Discussing conservation and park issues with the officer was very informative and I was glad to see so much good empathetic management going on in the park. In our exchange, a long-standing desire of mine to document and humanise the tiger people one comes across when visiting the king of the jungle, is being manifested. These people, in my opinion, are the real frontier warriors of our war against the war against nature. The well-being of these people is the well-being of the tiger, which being the apex predator, is the sign of a healthy habitat much like the amount of termite hills indicating the health of the forest.
To further sensitise and recognise the tiger folk is a much needed agreed upon point with Rahul, IFS 2004 batch, FD Heaven on earth “Corbett”. It is only through socio-economic benefits of the tiger people, can we survive the onslaught upon Mother Nature.
Let me tell you about some of them. Hope you forgive the nascent attempts at writing such an essay.
TIGER PEOPLE OF CORBETT
Nadeem Ansari: 34
A soft spoken man with childlike enthusiasm, more of a people’s person out of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kinda duo, who guided us through the park over four safaris. His father died really young, and mother, about a decade ago. His three lovely daughters — Alishba, Aroosh, Ananya — must be in love with this traditionally handsome man with great wit active on Instagram as @CorbettNadeem. He is seemingly dependent on his childhood friend for instinctive tracking, though just playing along to make his friend Irshad feel he was in control.
Irshad Ahmed : 34
A more rugged jungle man less in touch with the outside world than Nadeem, and more in touch with goings on of the park both human, animal and human politics. An astute man with a great understanding of the world around him. Irshad’s mechanic father, Dilshad was known to be as fearless as the tiger. Never turning down a request to walk all alone miles in the jungle at night with not much more than a stick if needed to. His two sons — Kabir and Arhaan Shad go to good schools.
Both these wonderful, not traditionally educated, soft spoken and innocent men, as most tiger people work beautifully in tandem alternatively being driver, guide and naturalists, much in harmony like the beauty of nature around them. Both incidentally rode around Uttarakhand as kids on a bike birdwatching and now make a living out of it.
Suman: 30 something
A typically sincere Uttarakhand/Garhwali soft spoken man with tales of man-eaters and his understanding of why and how they became one, taking much pride in his own deductions being correct. His home in his village barely 1400 metres, as the bird flies from the Khinanoli Forest Rest House where he works as an attendant/in-charge. It takes him 2.5 hours to walk home though not very possible with the thick jungle in between. To get home by bus, the only one leaves at 9 am to get him home in eight hours. Distances are funny like that in jungles, sometimes defying understanding but accepted like many truths of nature rather nonchalantly. His stories divided in yearly timelines were a breath of fresh air very matter of factly including some Prime Ministers and other distinguished guests.
Khyali Duth Kargeti: 59
A prime example of the simplicity of the hill people. 32 years of service out of which only the last eight not as a daily wager. I got arrested by his presence when I saw him guarding some manual labourers repairing a jungle path with his double barrel 12 gauge shot gun planted butt first into the ground not far from him. There are not many questions his face inspires because you feel he’s there doing his duty to his soul regardless of the passage of time.
One was pleasantly surprised by his interest in acting. The picture of him on stage playing Dashrath, which he showed us with silent pride and much amusement. A man standing testament to the integration of humans as part of conservation in Corbett.
Shan Alam: 25
Still unmarried. This man picked up my mom and friend and photography guide Sarosh Lodhi from Faridabad and Delhi. A high school graduate and the son of a driver, he now has been driving since he was fifteen. Throughout the trip, he kept on showering hospitality to make sure his guests remain comfortable. He was touched when my mom offered him home-made methi ke parathas. He showed me his international license and regaled me with stories of where he became a fan mine watching a road movie, which most know as Highway.
Shadab Ali: 36
The man who came to pick us up from Karnal. A tech-savvy, sweet spoken man full of fore thought in to our comfort and listening in to our needs. He has worked in Mumbai and much like me, loves the vada pav of the city of dreams. He has also worked in Sharjah in maintenance and chose to come home and work, living with his wife and two lovely daughters, Ira and Fatima, and sons Armaan and Aabis. When asked about tiger poaching, he laughed and told us one can’t even kill a chidiya let alone a tiger thanks to the close vigil kept on the park by the forest department. He told me that most people around the park depend upon the park and in turn the tiger. He also said that they will never let any harm come to the tiger as his peoples life depended on the “Gentleman of the jungle” as quipped by Edward James Corbett popularly known as Jim Corbett.
Disclaimer: The views expression by the author are personal, and not those of the publication.