Uttarakhand, the small hill state in northern India, has some of the country’s largest sanctuaries, including the famous Jim Corbett National Park. Only 200-odd kilometres away from Corbett, is Rajaji National Park, an 820-sq-km reserve home to elephants, panthers, and colourful birds like the great pied hornbill. Fossils of approximately 50 species of elephant dating back 10 million years have been found inside the national park. Only one species remains in India today, but with an estimated population of approximately 500 within the park, chances of spotting the beloved pachyderm are high.
Rajaji is located near the foothills of the Himalayas and spread across three districts of Uttarakhand: Haridwar, Dehradun, and Pauri Garhwal. Owing to its enormous land mass, the flora here is diverse, ranging from semi-evergreen to deciduous, and from mixed broad-leaved to terai grassland. Amaltas, shisham, and sal trees are easy to spot.
Rajaji is not as green as neighbouring reserves such as Jim Corbett or Nandadevi National Park. Some stretches are quite sparse, but this only makes spotting animals easier. All visitors require permits to enter the park and these are available at each of the entry gates (₹150 per head for Indians; ₹600 for foreigners). Entry is twice daily, between sunrise and sunset, from 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. Timings may vary during seasons. Open jeep safaris traverse the predetermined 34-kilometre safari trail (₹1,500 for 4 people). Elephant safaris were previously offered but these have since been discontinued. Private vehicles are permitted within the park, accompanied by a local guide (₹250 per vehicle; guide ₹200 per drive).
Rajaji is essentially an elephant sanctuary with some big cats. There are a few tigers but panthers (about 250) are the cats that are relatively easy to spot. Also sharing the habitat are spotted deer, cheetal, and barking deer, which can be seen frolicking on the banks of Ganga, and the Himalayan black bear, sloth bear, and grey langur, which prefer spending their days in the trees. Big mammals aside, the park is a delight for birdwatchers due to its varied habitats. As many as 315 bird species can be found at Rajaji. The rare great pied hornbill, with its fluttering eyelashes and distinctive helmet of yellow and black, is often seen here. During the breeding season between January and April, a glorious chorus, initiated by the male and later harmonised with its female counterpart can be heard resonating throughout the forest. Sadly, these impressively colourful birds are classified as near threatened due to hunting and loss of habitat. Look out also for the Indian grey hornbill, woodpecker, black-necked stork, green bee-eater, Egyptian vulture, yellow billed blue magpies and snowy-browed flycatcher as well as the entertaining aerobatic displays of the Indian roller.
The park is open from 15 November to 15 June, and remains closed during the rainy season. The best time for birdwatching is in winter (November to February) as migratory birds descend in large numbers. The weather in these months is pleasant and comfortable with temperatures hovering around 20˚C. May and June are the best times for photographing the wildlife, but it is extremely hot and dry, with temperatures soaring to 48˚C.
The main gate of Rajaji National Park is at Chilla, and can be accessed from Delhi by road along NH58 (223 km/6-7 hours). The nearest airport is Jolly Grant in Dehradun (32km/1 hour). There are daily flights from Delhi, which take approximately 55 minutes, and taxis are available from the airport to the park gate. The most convenient railway station is at Haridwar (9km/30mins), which is well connected by trains from around India, and is a short taxi trip to the Chilla Gate.
Government rest houses are available within Rajaji National Park. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (gmvn.gov.in) offers air-conditioned tourist rest houses, executive rooms, dormitory facilities, and huts built in the style of the indigenous Gujjar tribe. Alternatively, Wild Brook Retreat offers comfortable eco-friendly cottages (+91-9314880887; email@example.com; doubles ₹3,200 per head). They can organise 3-hour jeep safaris (₹1,800 per person including entry) as well as guides for trekking and birdwatching at an hourly rate. Outside the park, hotel accommodation to suit all budgets can be found in Rishikesh (28km/1.5 hours east).
Appeared in the September 2014 issue as “Trunk Calling”.
Kavita Devgan has many avatars: she is a health columnist, nutritionist and weight management consultant, a speaker and the author of “Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People”.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife. He is a RBS Earth Hero award winner for inspiring people for conservation.