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Jim Corbett, the man, the stories, and his enduring legacy of conservation
JUNIOR ENVIRONMENT Minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey has proposed to change the name of Corbett National Park to Ramganga National Park How did the park, and its association with the legacy of the man whose name it bears, come to be?
Jim Corbett has lent his name to not just India’s oldest and most celebrated national park, but to the entire cottage industry that has grown around it-from guesthouses to hair salons, general stores to gift shops, he lives on in and around the forests of Uttarakhand Corbet’s efforts led to the establishment of the national park-the first in Asia-but it did not always bear his name. When it was set up in 1936, the park was called Hailey National Park, after Sir Malcolm Hailey, govemor of the United Provinces. Shortly after Independence. it was renamed Ramganga National Park after the river that flows through it, and its name was changed to Corbett National Park in 1956 “Usually, things named after the English were renamed after Independence, but this was the other way around said Stephen Alter author of In the jungles of the Night: A Novel About Jim Corbett (2016). “It was at the insistence of Corbett’s friend, the first chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Govind Ballabh Pant, that the park was renamed after him, to honour his conservation efforts Alter said.
Corbett National Park is spread over 520 sq km in the Himalayan foothills near Nainital Along with the neighbouring 301-sq-km Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary, the park makes up the 1.288-sq-km Corbett Tiger Reserve. The hills, grasslands, and streams make Corbett ideal tiger territory. It was here that Project Tiger was launched in 1973, and its tiger population of 163 today is the largest in a single Tiger Reserve, with among the highest tiger densities in the country. The forests are also home to 600 elephants and over 600 species of birds.
Hunter and naturalist Edward James Jim Corbett was born in Nainital in 1875, and lived and shadow to capture the calls of animals and in India until Independence. He then left for Kenya, where he died in 1955. India’s best known big-cat hunter, Corbett tracked down and killed a number of tigers and leopards in Garhwal and Kumaon, over a dozen of whom are said to have been maneaters. He was equally well known as a storyteller with a gift for shikaar yarns and forest tales, and later, as a conservationist.
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The son of a postmaster and one of many siblings, Corbett would come down with his family from the hills every winter to their home in Kaladhungi in the foothills, which now houses a museum dedicated to his memory. The foothills would be his training ground, where he would learn-or as he would say “absorb”-the ways and lore of the forest, and much more. The skills he developed would hold him in good stead on his expeditions, captured vividly in Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944). The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1948), The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1955), and other accounts. Corbett’s books were as much an account of nature as they were of people. My India (1952) is an intimate account of the people he met in the hills and in the plains, while Jungle Lore (1953) meanders through forests in sun and shadow to capture the calls of animals and birds-and even an occasional banshee.
Corbett, who volunteered in both World Wars and was given the honorary rank of Colonel, spent much of his life with his sister Maggie. In his later years, he all but gave up hunting, turning instead to wildlife photography and conservation. Corbett was one of the first persons to take cine-films of tigers in the wild, writes Alter.
“When the park was made, there was no dearth of forest nor of prey base, so the contribution of jim corbett was that he saw much before anyone else that because of the spread of roads, motor cars and loosening of control of arms, the tiger did not stand much of a chance,” said Rajiv Bhartari, who was director of Corbett Tiger Reserve from 2005 to 2008 and is now principal chief conservator of forests (head of forest force), Uttarakhand. “So he used all his skills, contacts, and resources to work towards the establishment of the Asian mainland’s first national park. It was Corbett’s vision that the tiger needed protection. The park today represents over eight decades of conservation. Corbett’s great contribution lies in his early understanding of the link between conservation and community. “The path between protection and local welfare is very tough, and Jim Corbett had a coherent philosophy. He tried to work towards the protection of tigers but was equally sensitive and compassionate towards villagers,” said Bhartani, who has supervised research both on Corbett’s legacy and the history of Corbett National Park at the Wildlife Institute of India
When Corbett National Park was formed, the boundary was very carefully determined so that no rights of villagers were affected from its inception it (the park) has enjoyed the good will of people because of Corbett. I think that’s his legacy, the unique relationship between people and conservation,” he said. Bhartari recalled Corbett spent much of his latter life in trying to improve agriculture in Chhoti Haldwani-which he set up as a model Kumaoni village-by spreading better seeds, strengthening irrigation, and encouraging villagers to grow not just for consumption, but for sale. “He let a worker run a tea shop in his house so the worker could have a source of livelihood, and when he left for Kenya, he gifted all his land to the villagers he had settled in Chhoti Haldwani,” Bhartani said. The proposed renaming, said Alter, is in significant, “so long as Corbett’s legacy of conservation continues. “You can call Connaught Place (in New Delhi) Rajiv Chowk, but it doesn’t change people’s memories of the place. What’s important is not the name but that conservation effort in the park are strengthened.” Alter said.
CONTENT BY PRASHANT SINGH
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