Karnataka-based Suhas Hegde studied law but traded the black robes for khaki green and walking shoes. Bikramaditya Guha Roy from Kolkata worked as an instructional designer but seemed to have designs on something else. Bangalore resident Giri Cavale held a marketing job for eight long years while Sreeram, an IIM-Bangalore graduate, toiled hard in his chosen field, until they could no longer ignore their heart’s desire. Similarly, Mumbai-based Adesh Shivkar one fine day resigned from his stressful albeit well-paying job in the pharmaceuticals industry. Adesh and the rest were bitten by a bug—the wildlife bug, and fell prey to wanderlust. Combined, it became a heady potion, a magical brew (Get-a-fix!) that seemed to act as a panacea to life’s problems. It also gave them new careers. Romancing the flora and fauna, the biodiversity of a particular place, these wildlife experts have interpreted nature and tourism in a manner never done before, charting as a result, a new, exciting course for nature and wildlife tourism in the country. Relying on their knowledge as much as on technology, they have freed it from its ivory tower, making it accessible as well as affordable to millions of nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Of the early evangelists, one name that springs to mind is Jugal Tiwari. Having worked as a field scientist with Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and after stints in Africa, Mexico and America, he saved up enough to start his own initiative, Centre for Desert and Ocean (CEDO) in Kutch, in 2005. Apart from conservation measures like planting trees, involving the community in day-to-day activities and spreading awareness among rural folk, CEDO conducts birding and nature tours in Kutch, which Jugal says has been declared “the number one birding destination in India”. He says, “We welcome beginners as much as hardcore birders wanting to see only six or 10 species of birds.” Jugal has a home-stay here, with his wife and son helping him out. To the layperson, Kutch might seem like a place out of nowhere, but to the birder, it is a hallowed spot. People from as many as 26 countries have visited Kutch, says Jugal, adding that from among the top 10 birders in the world, six have been a guest here, including Pamela Rasmussen, author of the seminal Birds of South Asia. So what makes Kutch a favoured birding destination? Explains Jugal: “This place falls on the migratory route of galactic birds of both central Asia and Russia, providing a diverse eco-system with fresh water wetlands, desert grasslands, coastal sand dunes, tropical thorn forests and man-made reservoirs. Also, it is sparsely populated.” During the two months they are closed for birding, Jugal and his wife usually take a holiday, seeing other places and renewing ties with family and friends.
As the crow flies, Dehradun must be some 1,500km away from Kutch. And quite the opposite in terms of landscape and climate. Author, publisher and eminent birder Bikram Grewal has chosen to make his home here. Bikram’s 1984 book A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India threw the birding community into an uproar with the Cambridge-educated author being termed an ‘upstart’. Of course, it is another matter that the book sold “millions and millions of copies”. Bikram converted an abandoned land filled with lantana into the beautiful property it is today. Titled Walterre, it is a kind of home-stay and caters mostly to birders, with a birding tour once a month. All around, there are fruiting trees but warns Bikram that “nobody but the birds can pluck them”. Says he: “Just sitting on the verandah one can see 400 birds.” Also, Walterre has beautiful rooms with antique furniture, bird paintings and good food. The company Asia Adventures takes care of reservations. What was his most memorable moment? “One morning I saw a leopard resting on the gate. How many can boast a leopard in their garden list?” exclaims the author. His tone is turns scathing when talk veers towards conservation which, he says, with no political will is going downhill, never mind the good intentions of dedicated groups working towards awareness and protection.
At a time eco-tourism was taking baby steps in India, astrophysicist and birder Ramana Athreya was making periodical visits to Eaglenest sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh for research as well as to indulge in bird watching. Eaglenest, situated at the Himalayan foothills, has one of the most pristine forests in India and houses a large variety of wildlife. Keen on conservation in the area, he realised that the only way he could expect the participation of the tribals here (Buguns) was to show how it would benefit them. In 2003, a plan for a novel tourism venture was developed, with it taking off in 2006. Initially, of course forest officials were sceptical wondering why anybody would come here when there was nothing to offer—no tigers specifically! But after some persuasion, Kaati Tours (a venture started by Ramana) was entrusted with the task of conducting birding and nature tours here. Also, a momentous discovery by Ramana seemed to give a shot in the arm to eco-tourism here. In 2006, Ramana discovered a new bird called Bugun liocichlas (named after the Bugun tribe). Says he: “The new bird became a mascot for conservation, besides putting Eaglenest on the birding map. It also made the Bugun tribe very happy to know that a bird had been named after them.” By 2010, Ramana had handed over the management of Kaati Tours to the Bugun community. Courtesy Kaati Tours and Indi Glow, chairman of the Bugun Welfare Society, Eaglenest has become one of the hotspots for birding. “The profile of those interested in wildlife is changing. Thirty years ago I would meet the same people in various parts of the country. My model was of low-impact tourism, not the high-pressured tourism associated with the tiger-wallahs and rhinoceros-wallahs. I am happy that with Kaati Tours, eco-tourism is being conducted in the right manner with the money going directly to the local community,” proclaims Ramana.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep… and 32-year-old Suhas Hegde is privy to its innermost secrets. Suhas did his LLB but his love for nature and wildlife obliterated everything else. Today, under the aegis of TREC (Tropical-Research-Education-Conservation), Suhas conducts herpetology and nature tours (a day’s to three-day trek) within the forests of Sirsi, a small hilly town in the Western Ghats in Karnataka—a place which is second to none in terms of flora, fauna and wildlife and which houses a thriving reptile population (King Cobra is endemic to this region). Says Suhas: “My focus is primarily on snakes and to conserve them which I do by spreading awareness among locals. Once in the forest, we make sure that participants follow guidelines strictly, with nobody being allowed to handle venomous snakes.” He adds, “My treks are as much about studying snakes as enjoying birding and nature. For instance, Hornbill Callingu was an event conducted to create awareness about the hornbill, which attracted photographers and birders who spotted 150 hornbills (three species) in one day,” informs Suhas. While handling snakes is dangerous, Suhas’s experience of coming face to face with a black panther was equally chilling.
“My friends who were close on my heels ran away and I thought I was looking at certain death, until the beast, which was in an attacking mode, changed its mind,” smiles Suhas.
Think Sunderbans and the first image that pops into mind is the maneater, although lurking in this magnificent ecosystem are other equally dangerous predators. These mangrove forests are home to different kinds of birds, vegetation, mammals, etc. For Bikramaditya Guha Roy, who conducts nature tours here, it is second home. Bikramaditya gave up his job as an instructional designer and switched to wildlife conservation and tourism. Unlike some, Bikramaditya likes to take a holistic view, hence birds, butterflies, plants, even a dewdrop come up for scrutiny during his tours. Adds Bikramaditya: “My tours focus more on walking as I feel that when you walk, you are not an intruder but get integrated into the landscape. Also, my treks are more about the journey than the destination, and hence move at a languid pace.” His off-beat tours—“monsoondarban” which is about enjoying the monsoon at Sunderbans, sailing on boats in choppy waters etc.—have received much patronage from wildlife enthusiasts. Besides, he also conducts treks into the rainforests of Agumbe in Karnataka as well as birding/butterflies tours in Arunachal Pradesh (A Walk on the Orange side). “Every day, there are more and more converts. Digital technology, e-groups and sharing on social networking sites have helped make that possible,” says Bikramaditya, who recently authored Backyard Wildlife. To maximise the potential of his new undertaking, Bikramaditya has tied up with Polama, a Bangalore-based travel company.
India’s national animal is verily the magnet that attracts visitors to national parks and sanctuaries. Every wildlife tourist wants to “see the tiger”. And for the last 20 years, Satyendra Tiwari has been helping fulfil that desire. Working in the hospitality industry in Madhya Pradesh, the demands of his profession forced him to acquaint himself with wildlife and nature, till one day he chucked his job to become a wildlife expert-cum-tour leader and began to take visitors into Bandhavgarh, a place that boasts the highest density of tigers, attracting countless wildlife filmmakers as well. His set-up called Skay’s Camp in Bandhavgarh is a good place to stay. With so many tour operators in the region, what makes him such a good bet? “It’s the whole package. My 35 years in wildlife tourism, stay at Skay’s Camp, my wildlife photographer credentials,” explains Satyendra, adding that one of his pictures published in the BBC Wildlife Magazine kept him in the news as well as business for three to four years. Wildlife photographs and stories are frequently contributed by his wife Kay to tigernation.org. His clientele consists mostly of European tourists, with his tours booked ‘two years in advance’.
Conducting wildlife photography tours in Kamchatka, Russia, or Kabini, Karnataka, Giri Cavale’s company Toehold Travel and Photography is adept at the task. After all, claims the 30-something entrepreneur, “We were pioneers in this field. When we started out in 2010, there was nobody offering this.” Today, Toehold has grown to include a branch in Pune, with a 17-member staff. “The main objective of Toehold is to bridge the gap for beginners, and counter the difficulties we faced when we started,” says Giri, who gave up a marketing job in 2008 to pursue his passion. The company not only rents out photo equipment, but also conducts photography workshops while on tour. Every year, they conduct close to 50-60 photography tours from Ladakh to Ranthambore to the North-east to Kabini. Besides, tours to Kamchatka in Russia and Svalbard in Norway to see and photograph brown bears and polar bears respectively attract a lot of tourists. Giri’s best moment was when his picture of two leopards mating won him the second prize at the 2013 Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Awards. Toehold likes to keep its work and conservation separate. “We did not want to marry the two, but whenever we click a picture that essays the spirit of wildlife conservation, we share it with the community,” he says.
While wildlife photography is gaining currency among the young crowd, travel and landscape photography is also getting popular. And at Darter Photography Tours (Darter signifying the avian and travel), both wildlife and travel photography have meshed thanks to Sreeram who looks after the wildlife side, and his partner Arun Bhat who looks after travel. Sreeram had been a busy bee handling the marketing and operations for his company, touring abroad frequently. As he says, he was working with so many ‘start-ups’ that it soon became contagious and knowing his calling lay elsewhere, Sreeram in 2011 took the plunge and launched Darter, while bringing on board Arun. Since then, they have conducted wildlife photography tours to Kabini, Bhadra, Agumbe, Coorg and Kutch as well as travel photography tours to Badami, Lahaul and Spiti, Nagaland and Rajasthan. Photography workshops form an important component of these tours. Apart from that, they also conduct day-outs to Melkote and Nandi Hills. His clientele is made up of beginners to mid-level amateurs. Says Sreeram: “We have not advertised at all, it’s all been word of mouth.”
The speciality of NatureIndia, a company managed by Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khadilkar is that it does a bit of everything, tours focusing on birds, reptiles, tigers and wild flowers. But, the Mumbai-based Adesh says emphatically, “Eighty per cent of our tours are devoted to birding.” For a dozen odd years, Adesh bore the pressures of a marketing job while on the side pursuing his bird watching hobby, until the time came when he resigned. Bored with regular entertainment fare and with people wanting a different outlet, Adesh through NatureIndia stepped in to help ‘uncover a beautiful world out there’ and soon made his hobby his livelihood. Wildlife tours are generally restricted to the big national parks and sanctuaries, but Adesh feels the smaller ones are also teeming with wildlife. Hence, Kaziranga, Corbett and Bandhavgarh feature as much on his itinerary as the Tal Chappar Sanctuary, places in and around Jamnagar, Dandeli, Little Rann of Kutch, Great Rann of Kutch and the Kaas plateau which is home to some of the loveliest wild flowers. Six years and going strong, NatureIndia does not advertise, with its tours booked fully.
Butterfly tourism—a few years ago, the term might have caused people to shake their heads in puzzlement. But now the changing face of nature tourism and with butterfly parks and butterfly gardens gaining immense popularity, it prompts a different reaction. And when at the helm is Peter Smetacek, an authority on butterflies and author (Butterflies on the Roof of the World), that reaction might well be awe. In the cool and beautiful environs of Bhimtal, some 20km from Nainital, Peter resides with his family on a forest estate. Peter, who has a BA in English literature, runs the Butterfly Research Centre, a paramount place for study and research of butterflies and moths in India.
His father, a German of Czech origin who migrated to the Kumaon hills from war-torn Europe during the 1940s, settled down here as it reminded him of home. The Butterfly Research Centre offers consultancy to various butterfly parks, gardens and research institutions, with courses being conducted for students doing their PhD as well as courses for beginners. Day-long workshops are conducted with boarding and lodging also provided. Peter had his father’s immense butterfly collection to fall back on and he has only added to that impressive legacy. While butterfly enthusiasts have been organising butterfly meets all over the country regularly, Peter is now in talks with wildlife tourism majors to conduct butterfly tours.
The one good thing that has emerged from this is that wildlife tourism in India is not restricted to the big cats or the elephant. It is as much about the bee-eater, the sunbird as about the wild flowers, butterflies and reptiles. Everyday, there are new converts. Thanks to digital technology, increased affluence and growing and committed tribe of nature and wildlife enthusiasts, nature and wildlife tourism is on a high. As Einstein says: “Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better.”