Thursday 24 February 2011

The Wild India - My exclusive Blog on Wildlife and Nature

TOURISM – The Indian way to look at it !



Most of the Indians go in for the following 5 types of Tourisms :


(1) Hills – Plenty of them, not just Himalayas, but anything above 500 m above sea level and having a climate of 20 degrees as against the average 37 degrees is proudly considered a hill gateway ;)
(2) Beaches- 70 % of India has a coastline giving some great beaches to visit and each state has some great and more importantly accessible beaches
(3) Pilgrimage – Indians are usually the God-fearing or god-loving types and all religions be it Hindus, Jain, Muslim, South Indians, Sikhs will have multiple options for the same, and each state would have multiple places worshipped since ages and believed strongly in
(4) Leisure – this would cover luxury properties, spas, massages, shopping etc. That’s why some of the best properties do a great business !
(5) Heritage tourism – would be like Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, Taj etc. where one would find good history, monuments and the buried stories of the past.


Most of the Indians spend across Category 1-4 and a very few towards the 5th one – Heritage tourism as the same requires a flare of history and above all patience, which Indians would normally lack.


Ideally a core requirement of a common Indian from anywhere in the country would be a good memorable place, good food and good spots to visit. Therefore crowded places like Simla, Darjeeling, Kulu, Lonavala, Khandala etc thrive in business despite the shitty offerings full of crowd much more than the local trains of Mumbai ! But, the numbers speak good – what can one do !


Offlate, you hear Indians splurging on Adventure sports like Bungee Jumping, Skydiving etc. Again a typlical Indian mentality of “why do I spend my own money to screw my happiness” overlaps the attitude to buy your thrill and the witness is the lack of such sports in India besides some River rafting sports in various parts of India. The world is moving a step further where tourists go for a “Horror Toursim” where you are taken to various locations and haunted properties like palaces, theatres, colleges, etc where you”may” encounter a spirit.


The Niche

But India, is still too behind in the evolving tourism options, but yes- there is always a niche for these tourisms. There are people like us who would want to go to a place less traveled and explore and enjoy the nature. Be it, exploring and sitting on a silent lake at Jawahar, Maharashtra where no tourists would come or find a natural waterfall in Panchgani valleys or taking a night walk at Periyar, Kerala or the not so common boat ride at the Rain Forests of Tama Negara in Malaysia where Anaconda was shot or explore the unexplored side of Goa where you may not find much Indians. Every place has such unexplored side of its and one common factor here is “NATURE” – Untouched and gifted !

Wild Life Tourism

One such niche tourism for the Nature lovers is WILDLIFE TOURISM. I come from a Gujju family and till date, 99% of our family tourisms in India or abroad were in the above 5 categories, till the last few years wherein our trips in the above 5 categories are just 20% and 80% into the NATURAL LOCATIONS, where the common man would not want to go. When I ask my mother or uncle to join in for a Wild life tourism, the reaction is “Sher dekhna hi hai to itni door jungle mein kyon jaaye, zoos are here” (If you want to see a Tiger, why take so much pain to go to a jungle, better visit a nearby zoo) and this will be the statement in most Indian families, the proof is 75% of the tourists for wild life are foreigners.


But, its not just seeing a tiger, the whole experience of exploring the jungle on your own, in an open gypsy early in the morning when its pitch dark and seeing the shades of the forest changing every minute as the sun rises and the efforts you put in to trace a tiger or a lion and the adrenalin kick you get when you after good efforts find a tiger with its cub or a herd of wild elephants or a rare leopard is more than winning a Million Dollars in the Vegas. And enjoying the wild in its natural habitat is a heavenly experience which many of my other holidays put together could have given me.


How it started

This started in 2007, when me and Gautam, my past colleague visited South Africa on a business trip. I used to surf through TV Channels and the shots on beautiful wildlife made me stick to the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet that I ended up spending hours on it. I had decided that post our business trip, we would want to visit a Wild Life Safari or a Game Sanctuary in South Africa as most of the wild shoots were from Africa. We decided to go to PILANESBERG SANTUARY in South Africa and my “Wild Life Bug” was born. Though as a Kid, I had visited Sunderbans and Kaziranga as a part of my 5 category Indian trip, the same was not that exciting as (a) I was a small kid and (b) It was not so important to visit these places and we just happened to have visited them.


But, post (1) PILANESBERG- South Africa, its 4 years now and I have visited 7 Wild Life Safaris / National Parks like (2) BANDAHVGARH (Madhya Pradesh) (3) KANHA (Madhya Pradesh) (4) MELGHAT TIGER RESERVE (Maharashtra) (5) TADOBA NATIONAL PARK (Maharashtra) (6) THE GREAT HIMALAYAN NATIONAL PARK-(H.P). (7) PERIYAR TIGER RESERVE / THEKKADY (Kerala) (8) GIR NATIONAL PARK (Gujarat) and have committed myself to visit at least 1-2 a year !

India has a huge resource of Wild Life which attracts huge number of foreigners every year mostly between October to March and also from April to June (which is very hot- 47 degrees, but best time to site animals). It was in 2009, when a friend, philosopher and guide from the IFS (Indian Forest Services), the then CFC (Chief Forest Conservator) of Thane, Maharahstra, Shree Bhagwan guided me to Tadoba, where once he held forte, and I was able to sight the best wild life scene of my life, also covered by an interview by the Star News and Star Maaza, I thought that I should do my bit towards “Wild Life” !


Being from the Rajput clan of the Princely state of Wankaner in Gujarat and may be, as my Mom says there is some genes from the ancestors, that I have such a strong liking for wild life. The process remained same – exploring the jungle, tracing the wild, the only differences being they used guns and I use my camera. The big cats adored their palaces and walls and they adore my memories, they cherished and showcased their collections of stuffed tigers and other wild animals to the world, and I through this blog am trying to showcase the beauty of the Indian wildlife to the world.

The Wild India - www.wildIndia.blogspot.com


Welcome to the Wild India and through this medium, I would try to bring you close to each of the exciting wild life and nature experiences we have, right from explaining you how to go, where to live, what to do, some secret spots and ofcourse some exciting pictures. Hope you enjoy this and hope this blog would help promote wild life as a tourism adding on to the revenue of the country, giving employment to the local tribals and for the generation of tomorrow to conserve nature ! Do visit and share your feedback.

Sunday 20 February 2011

GIR NATIONAL PARK- The last home of Asiatic Lion

January 26 –February 1 2011 : Sasan Gir, Gujarat :  I had been across various national reserves primarily to sight the national pride – the Royal Bengal Tiger and allied wildlife. (actually, the big cat has always been the star attraction initially, till we actually started understanding and cherishing the wildlife in toto.) Had sighted Lions in Africa, but despite hailing from Gujarat and that too Saurastra, which is the only and the last abode of the Asiatic Lions, surprisingly had not yet been to the Gir. Actually, was trying to coordinate with a cousin of mine since more than a year - he knew the forest officials there and it is always helpful to have connects, but somehow the same was not being materialized and then, thought of initiating ourselves a wildlife trip to understand the forest, its wildlife and the conservation representing our NGO (Empower Foundation)’s project – The Wild India.

Actually, the charm of seeing a Lion (especially the Male one, with lustrous mane and persona) is a damn good kicker, after all He- is the king of the jungle !  Now, coming to the Lions, the first remarkable statement which comes affront of a wild life enthusiast is that while the number of tigers are reducing day by day….1411 being the latest count, how are the number of Lions increasing ? from just next to extinction in 1920s with only around 20 lions alive, during the Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat Khans time, when the British Administration intervened triggering the protection of the animal that the numbers have shot all the way to 411 in the 2010 census. This itself is a remarkable achievement which other wildlife conservators should learn from Gir. Ofcourse, Narendra Modi using Amitabh Bachchan has been promoting and protecting Gir since a while, but the efforts in saving the Lions has been purely the forest officials credit.

We left Mumbai at 8:00PM by Saurashtra Mail which reached Junagadh at 2:00 PM the next day. Other option would have been flight to Rajkot and then by road or flight to Bhavnagar or Diu, but the former was more cost efficient over a night journey. Sasan is around 60 kms from Junagadh and the drop charges of an Innova is Rs. 1200-1300. We checked in at the Forest Guest House – Sinh Sadan which is also the entry and booking point for all jeep safaris and permits. Let me say that this was one of the most beautifully maintained government property I have ever come across. MTDC would be rated 20% of the same in terms of hygiene, ambience, cleanliness, location. I would not give you an hour by hour summary of the trip but would like to cover the national park, our experience, wildlife conservation and why lions are more than tigers in my article below.

(1) A Background

The Gir forest stretches over an area of 1, 412 sq km of which 258.71 sq. km. was declared a National Park. Gir is one of the largest tracks of dry deciduous forest. The park has a great landscape covering hills, plateaus, valleys and is drained by seven rivers and a waterbody called Kamleshwar dam which makes the topography of the forest very scenic and beautiful.


Though Gir is home to a variety of wild animals covering 38 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and 2000 species of insects. But this wildlife sanctuary is renowned for Lion population and the last abode of the Lions in India and also India's largest Leopard population. Besides, the wildlife sanctuary is home to several Sambar, Spotted Deer, Chowsingha (Four-horned Antelope), Chinkara, Nilgai, Wild Boar, Gazelle, Langur, Jackal, Hares and Hyena.
Gir is also home to a number reptiles like Marsh Crocodiles, Monitor Lizards, Pythons and a wide variety of snakes. Close to Gir Wildlife Sanctuary there is an interesting crocodile breeding farm at Sasan, where one can see crocodiles in their natural habitat. Apart from these, Gir boasts of numerous bird species like White Necked Stork, Paradise Flycatcher, Black headed Cuckoo Shrike, Bonneli's Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Painted Storks, Pied Woodpecker, Woodpeckers Flamingo etc. And as someone rightly said, that if there were no lions at Gir, it would have been the country’s biggest bird sanctuary !

(2) The Tribes of Gir


The unique side to Gir is that it houses the local tribals – Maldharis- cattle grazers who live upon cattles and milk, Sorathi Rabaris and Siddi’s who look like Negros and speak Gujarati and are believed to have come to Gujarat in medieval times from African countries. Earlier there were 454 Maldhari villages called “Ness” inside the forest and now there are just 54 as the forest department has rehabilitated the same. This was one main reason of man-animal conflict and on the otherside, one reason for the increasing population. For a Lion, who is relatively a lazier cat than the leopard or tiger, it is easy to venture into a ness/village and kill a cow or a bull reather than running stressfully after a deer or a sambhar in the wild. The cattles have formed key diet of the Lion as high has 70% at one point of time and the forest department culls out as much as Rs 150 Crs pa to reimburse the villagers. But today, thanks to the conservation exercise of the forest department that now there is more greenery, and hence more deers etc – from around 4404 (1974) to 52492 (2010) in a decade which now has become the core diet of the Lion, thus reducing the cattle-diet to 30% from 70%. Maldharis and Lions ideally stay together and share the same place to live- the Gir forest. This has caused issues but there have been instances where a lion and a Maldhari is walking together.

(3) Our wildlife experience



Coming back to the core area, there are 7 routes within the park – Route 2,5,6 are almost identical but open from different sides and route 1,3,4,7 which are different from each other. The former are good to sight lions in the winters and the latter the best in summers. But route number 3 and 4 are highly recommended to see the best and the most scenic part of the forest. One needs permit from the forest department to enter the park.  The permit costs Rs 500 and the jeep charges are Rs 800 and  Rs 100 per camera of 7MP and above and Guide fees Rs 100 (One usually tips above the same based on ones experience and satisfaction- though there are some idiotic guides in the park who can be either mum or over spoken, but one has to depend upon luck to get the guide who are allotted randomly by the forest department, but one can still request the forest guys for a better guide.


The Rarest of the Owl

In our Safaris, we sighted marsh crocodiles, owls, jackals, sambhars, deers and some rarest birds on route 3,4. And we sighted 2 Male Lions together, 1 lioness and 2 cubs and 1 female single lioness all in just an hour of the morning safari in route number 2. Each sighting was exciting and we never expected to see 2 male lions together. But unlike Tigers, who live in solitude and its difficult to see them with other tigers and tigresses, its easy to spot lions in group and family. Lions are family animals and 2 male brothers can stay together, share lionesses and territories. One would hear from fellow tourists or locals that there was a sighting of 6 lions, 10 lions and so on. It sounded strange as one had to put in so much of efforts to see one tiger, but we bought that when we ourselves saw 6 lions in a span of 30 minutes.
The Sly Jackal at Gir
It is recommended that one should do atleast 4-5 safaris to have a good chance of spotting the lion and surely cover all routes like either of 3,4,7 for a good and different forest than route 2,5,6.  Summers are best to spot any wild animal as water shortage brings them to the nearest water body, but winters are comfortable and pleasant with temperatures dropping to 10 degree Celsius vs. maximum of 40 degree Celsius in summers. There are 3 Safaris of 3 hours each (around 45 kms of drive each). Morning 6:30-9:30 AM, where chances are better from 6:30-7:30AM ie. Pre complete sun-rise/ early morning and Evening 3:30-6:30PM, when the chances are better in the late evening/dusk when it starts getting darker from 5:30-6:30PM. The lions or tigers usually do movements during non-sunny time or when there is not too much of light. Leopards can be sighted in the day. There is a 9:30AM to 12:30PM Safari too, which is not much worth, but the guides & drivers come to know about the movement of the lions & other animals in the earlier safari and one can check this out.. The ideal way to look for a lion is through pug-marks and alarm calls. There are no Lion shows like Bandhavgarh or Kanha, but the Rescue team of the Gir forest does an early round to locate the lions / groups and check if there is any medical/emergency need (a day before our visit they had rescued a lion cub attacked by a male lion wanting eliminate his future competition and had brought it to the hospital for treatment)

 

One more exciting part of our visit was our 19 hour long journey in the nearby areas of the Gir Sanctuary where the permits are given to locals and tourists. We were recommended by a fellow wild life enthusiast from Mumbai to do this route as one can have chances of spotting the lions on the road or while traveling in  and around the nearby periphery / villages. We left early in the morning to visit KANKAI – This forest route is so fat the best in the country and a different one, very highly recommended. From Kankai – Banej – Tulshishyam – Una (near Div) – Gir Garddha- Dron- Dholwada- Babaria- Dhokarwa- Itwaya-Phatsar –Maranka – Talala-Sasan. It was fantastic trip. We missed the lions closely as we saw the fresh pugmarks on a river bank. Saw a lioness jumping on a deer and missing it and saw other wild animals including the rare Jackal whom we followed for 20 minutes, but in all – this route was one of the best and scenic forest route so far we have driven on. One can hire a Sumo or a Jeep from Sasan locally, as other cars may just break into pieces on some of the terrains in the this route.

So, overall 4 days in Gir alone should be a great fun for sure. But if you would behave like a true Gujju wanting to cover Gir, Diu, Somnath, Veraval, Junagadh etc in all the 4 days, then, my recommendation is don’t insult and bother Gir al the way – please visit your nearest zoo or circus to see the Lion, you deserve the same.

(4) How to Reach

By Air: Ahmedabad, 415 km away is the nearest airport. Regular flights from major Indian cities fly to Ahmedabad. From Rajkot, it should be around 300 kms.
By Rail: Junagadh, 65 km away is the most convenient railhead to the Gir National Park. From Mumbai, everyday Saurashtra Janta Mail leaves and while on return once has a n option of the same and also Veraval-BCT Pass Express. AC 1,2,3 are available besides the sleeper class.
By Road: The park is well connected with good road network from nearby areas. Volvo buses run from Ahmedabad to Junagadh and from here you take mini buses to Sasan Gir. There are govt. buses that run between Junagadh and Veraval via Sasan Gir.

(5) Where to Stay:

The Gir Lodge by Taj is one of the few 5 star properties along with Lion Camp Safari. Club Mahindra also have their property in Sasan Gir. Some of the other 3 star or equivalent are Amidhara resort, Vanvaso resort & Gir Birding Lodge. There are also some budget hotels like Maneland hotel & Sinh Sadan which is a GSRTC hotel. Sinh Sadan is also a very nice property with decent clean rooms and the benefit in staying at this place is that the safari booking is also done from their reception for which guests from each and every hotel have to come here. There are also Farm Houses for different budgets with rooms & tents viz Bhavesh Farms, Parmar Farms, Shyam Farm House, Anil Farm house, Om Farm house etc. There is no great food option in Sasan as compared to Bandhavgarh, Kanha etc, which attract more tourists especially the foreigners for whom Tigers are rare species and Lions are what they would have had already seen in Africa. One may try Rajwadi, Green Park for good food. One may find from Rs 500 to Rs 10000 per night accommodation at Gir.  The food is decent and can cost something between 70-100 bucks.

(6) Wild life Safaris :

There are 3 Safaris (6:30, 9:30, 3:30) every day across 7 designated routes :

(i)                  Jeep Safari Economics : One needs permit from the forest department to enter the park. The forest department is doing a great job by being strict of permit and entry-exit time lines in the core and non-core areas around the forest, which is good for the animals. The permit costs Rs 500 and the jeep charges are Rs 800 and  Rs 100 per camera of 7MP and above and Guide fees Rs 100 (One usually tips above the same based on ones experience and satisfaction- though there are some idiotic guides in the park who can be either mum or overspoken, but one has to depend upon luck to get the guide who are allotted randomly by the forest department, but one can still request the forest guys for a better guide.

(ii)                Routes : Out of the 7 allowed routes - One should visit all possible routes to enjoy the complete forest. For eg. Route no. 2 and 6 are same – only entry and exit changes. So, if one does only these 2 routes he has seen just 5% of the forest. Hence, one should try his hand on route 3,4,7, 1 etc, as the topography of the forest changes drastically in each.
(iii)              Time Punctuality : One should ensure to wake up at 5:00-5:30AM (we are never used to, but, you dont have a choice)and enter the park sharp at 6:30. The probability of seeing a Lion is 80-90% between 6:30-7:30 and same in the late evenings 5:30-6:30. If you are late, (It takes time in permit seeking etc, there would be long queue, one can request for advance permit a day ahead) than the probability is just 20% !
(iv)              Other forest tour : One should definitely hire a vehicle locally for the nearby route trip. This trip could show you the best of the forests – atleast in Kankai, Banej and Jamvada route and you may be lucky to sight Lions in wilderness.                                  

Enroute to the Kankai Forests


(v)                Recommended Guides / Drivers (though one can not choose your own guide, but still can request the forest officer at booking window, because the passionate and interested the guide and driver is the better are the chances for you to spot the wildlife and enjoy)
            






            Recommended Guides- Rahim, Abhilash, Amit, Imtiaz, Atul, Solanki.
Drivers- Murad bhai, Salim, Dinesh, Bharat Vaja (excellent forest knowledge, you may not require a guide)
Guides / Drivers to avoid :Jagga (Jagdish Vaja), Munir, Shadik (driver and guide)

(6) Tourism in GIR – Pros and Cons

Every tourist place has some pluses and minuses. Below summarized are the same for Gir with some recommendations for the forest department and government at large.

Cons in tourism at Gir:

a)       Target Audience : Having seen many tiger reserves, Gir is much behind in terms of high quality hospitality and tourism pullers like (1) good restaurants (there are average ones which close by 10PM and serve almost similar monotonous food- but a good Kathiawadi and Punjabi food), (2) cybercaf├ęs or memorablia shopping centres (3) Medical facilities like good hospitals – this is in Sasan the heart of tourism.   Maybe in Talala, which is 15 kms away, the facilities are little better, but there are no formal transportation system between the two. (4) Formal travel operators (there are many unorganized operators)

The reason behind this could be lack of foreign tourists. Like in Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Ranthambhor, Jim Corbett – one can easily see 50%+ of tourists being foreigners. In Gir, out of 30 Jeeps allowed, guess I saw only one jeep consisting of foreigners. The reason could be that the Lion might not be a star attraction for them, which they would have seen in Africa, but Tiger- definitely they wouldn’t have seen in Africa or any other part. So, naturally, foreign tourist revenues will develop the above tourist facilities.

The problem is that 50% of the tourists are from Gujarat, 40% from all over the country and rest foreigners (This is based on my understanding from local drivers, guides). The most of first 50% come for leisure trip rather than wildlife tourism. 

Atleast am happy that unlike Maharashtra, Gujarat has started taking the forest portfolio and wildlife seriously. Infact, the same day we had come, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Cabinet Minsiter for Environment and Forest had visited Gir with Mr. S.K,Nanda, IAS & Secretary, Forest, Government of Gujarat. Maybe, the hidden agenda would have been to relocate some lions to MP, but whatever, the fact that national level focus is also coming besides the state-level visibility and focus created by Narendra Modi. Infact, a strong recommendation to the Forest Department and Narendra Modi is that Gir should be promoted as a hard core wild life destination and not just a tourism destination. Hopefully, with Amitabh Bachchan as the brand ambassador, this should improve.

b)      There are no Lion Shows (a few years back, there used to be Lion shows – wherein a cattle was taken by the forest department and the lions lured to kill it. This stopped post the Lion attacked and killed a tourist’s child. In Bandhavgarh, Kanha etc- there are Elephant shows, where one is taken on the elephant to view the tiger post it is spotted by the forest team. Atleast, from the tourists perspective, one has a better chance to see a tiger if not in the jungle. Hence, more tourists are pulled with some assurance. Imagine, someone spending 4 days and money and coming back seeing just deers and monkeys. It has happened with many of my friends in Corbett, Periyar and Gir. These places which are more beautiful jungles are out of their lists now and Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Ranthambhor have become regular repeat destinations.

c)       There is strict following of a route. For eg. If one is allotted route No. 2, he has to be there and follow the same till the exit. One has to agree that in this mobile age, despite of no networks, drivers-guides are able to network and  share where they saw lions. Now, like in Bandhavgarh or Kanha, one is to strictly follow the given route in the first half (1.5 hrs), post which the jeep has to register at a centre point and then when the necessary information is exchanged, one is allowed to roam freely on the routes where sighting has happened. This enhances one’s chance of seeing the big cat. In Gir, this is not allowed and should be allowed. The counter argument is that the animals may get disturbed when many jeeps would flock together- that is true, but (a) they are used to it and (b) but well these are just 5% of your total population who know that there are tourists coming every day to see them. These are not the wildest of the cats living in the solitude.

d)      Limited Jeeps : Gir allows 30 Jeeps per safari, which is lesser, but across 3 timings 90 jeeps are Ok. But in the peak season, this would become a key challenge from tourists perspective.  Maybe one can look at more routes. Had heard there were 10 routes earlier.

e)      Professionalism / Hospitality : We discussed in the first point, that the demography of the tourist is such that one can live with average hospitality. For eg. In Bandhavgarh, Kanha, there are many highend hotels, upmarket tourists- both Indian and Foreigner – automatically, the quality of service, has to improve. Here, the same is improving, thanks to the forest department that the uniform has been made compulsory for the guides now. But, it is strongly recommended that the drivers, guides, hotel staffs etc should be trained well in soft skills and other specialized areas so the tourists are served better and more tourists come. The local restaurants and shops are also not as hospitable as it should be from a tourism perspective, giving you a feeling that they don’t bother – if you eat or don’t at their place. The experience was same at Green park, Rajwadi restaurants. We did not see anyone going overboard to impress upon or serve extremely well, so one re-visits. This has to improve, else the tourism flow will move towards MP.

Pros in tourism at Gir:

Against the above Cons, there are many Pros for Gir, which makes it one of the best wildlife destinations of the country and the world :


a)       Lions are easier to sight : Unlike tiger, which is elusive in most wildlife parks in India, lions in Gir are easy to sight. Gir lions are unafraid of humans and perhaps one of the reasons that their sightings are not as rare as of the tigers. Wildlife experts associate this fact to the proximity of lions to Maldharis, a community who rear livestock and have always lived within the park for a long time now. On the negative side, the lion is much bolder, more fearless of man and less cunning than the tiger and so is much more easily shot. This explains the disappearance of the noble animals from all its other Indian haunts besides Gir whilst the tiger manages to maintain its numbers.

Besides the King Lion, there are many wild animals to sight and ideally foreigners and the true blue wildlife enthusiasts come to any wild safari for the rest and not just the big cat. Gir, if there would have been no Lions would have been the country’s biggest bird sanctuary with many inland and migratory birds residing here. We too saw some of the rarest of owl, pelicans, jungle birds and more. Peacocks could outnumber the crows of a city !

b)      Alternate Lion viewing : Despite the better chances, one can be unlucky to spot the Lions. We saw it in 1 out of 4 safaris. The forest department has created a protected area called Gir Interpretation Centre at Devalia where once can see wild animals including the Lions in their wild.

c)       It is Gujarat  – This is the most enterprising part of India and you would have any one and every one – be it a rickshaw driver or a labour on the road – who would (1) have a mobile (2) will make an outgoing call for you (3) will want to network for you and help you to get in touch with someone he knows who could add value into your tourism. Be it the guides or drivers, they will put in their best to show you the lions/jungle as they know that they will be tipped. Though, there are some people absolutely opposite, which the training would take care of.

d)      State Government backing Gir : Unlike Maharashtra even Gujarat has many more sources of revenues from the government perspective, but the government and Narendra Modi has been creating visibility around Gir (even though if it is an egoish tussle to avoid relocating the states pride, it’s good for the wildlife in general).

e)      Strong & Passionate Forest Department : The forest department headed by DCF, Dr. Sandeep Kumar – a young, dynamic and a passionate IFS is another strength of Gir. It is not that any IAS aspirant who could not creak UPSC got through in IFS and is spending his time at the posting. It is the otherway, that a young guy deciding to sacrifice his chic urban life for his love for forests that Dr. Sandeep Kumar had moved from Delhi to the remote Sasan. Some volunteers from The Wild India Project of Empower Foundation requested to meet him for 10 minutes and he was generous to give us much more time to explain the park, its initiatives and also showing us some of the finest wild life pictures, he himself had clicked. I have met many forest officials till date, but have rarely come across such a passionate, hard working (in a remote Sasan, his day begins at 5 and ends at 11 everyday) and dynamic officer. Naturally, this passion and dynamism flows down the line which was evident in other officers, RFO, Rescue teams etc.  In the nutshell, our understanding of the forests, wildlife and conservation increased multiple folds post our meeting and my only statement, post Jairam Ramesh’s visit was that looking at how he has conserved Lions at Gir, he might be soon picked up for a national initiative to conserve the attriting tigers- than what will happen to Gir and his answer was simple – the processes and systems build would last for long and the lions would stay, the only thing which will get effected will be his intense love for the big cats of Gir.

(7) Wildlife Conservation at GIR

Now, coming to the biggest area – and a natural question which may come to ones mind- Why in Gir, Lions have increased from just 20 to 411 viz.a.viz declining population of Tigers in the country.

Unlike tiger, which is elusive in most wildlife parks in India, lions in Gir are easy to sight. Gir lions are unafraid of humans and perhaps one of the reasons that their sightings are not as rare as of the tigers. Wildlife experts associate this fact to the proximity of lions to Maldharis, a community who rear livestock and have always lived within the park for a long time now. MA Wynter-Blyth, a famous naturalist pointed this fact as one of the reasons why lions have disappeared so quickly.  He said, “The lion is much bolder, more fearless of man and less cunning than the tiger and so is much more easily shot. This explains the disappearance of the noble animals from all its other Indian haunts whilst the tiger manages to maintain its numbers.”

The Gir National Park in India proves to be a protected area for the lions but threats like human settlements, loss of habitat and prey species are obvious. The biggest threat to the lion population is poaching. Though the punishment for poaching is exemplary, poachers do make bids to bag lion skins. Even the nails of a lion are at a premium. It is believed that since a lion himself is brave and majestic, some of those qualities must be inherent in his body parts. Hence the non-perishable nail, mounted in gold and worn as a talisman, chiefly to infuse courage into a timid person.

One big reason of man-animal conflict is the lions moving out of Gir to find new territories which also means traveling kilometers away from their places crossing many villages, which naturally means conflicting with the humans. Today, the concern is with increasing population, Gir National Park is falling short of space, but on the positive side, instead of men relocating the animal, they themselves moving towards new territories outside Gir like in Girnar, Mitiala & Coastal forests. Today, Girnar itself boasts of 24 plus lions and the 21 lions live in the coastal forests of Kodinar and Chhara.

  1. Rescue and Animal Care – Gujarat Forest Department has a long history of wildlife rescue, capture and health management with well equipped hospitals, veterinary support which boasts of more than 2000 rescue and release operations in the last decade covering 417 lions, 589 leopards and 112 other animals.  The rescue initiative includes 4 rescue vehicles with teams of rescue trekkers have considerably help reduce the deaths and accidents of lions at large. This is a unique operation I saw viz.a viz. other national parks and Sanctuary Asia has acknowledged this initiative by conferring an award to the Gir Rescue Team.

  1. Maldhari Rehabilitation - Also Maldharis and other tribes which are the integral part of the forest have livestocks to survive on. These usually encroach inside the forest for pasture hampering the same and creating competition for the animals within the forest for the same amount of available food creating a conflict. On the otherside, since the number of lions are increasing and the territory remains same, they often roam outside the boundaries of the PA, entering into the villages and killing livestock. This creates hostility against the lions and the villagers often leave poisoned bait for the lions to consume. The open wells that have been dug by the farmers for irrigation also act as a trap and many lions have drowned in them. Crude Electric fences connected to high voltage overhead power lines, designed to keep the nilgai (blue bull) away from the crops, have also been the cause of a lot of lion deaths. There have also been cases of poaching in the Gir forest, this is a direct result of the government and the National Parks tightening the security at the Tiger Reserves.

The forest in its upliftment drive has rehabilitated majority of the nesses of Maldharis but even today many still live inside inviting the conflict. The forest department has supported the tribes with leased agricultural land,  employments, reimbursement for killing of livestocks, supply for firewood, grass etc.  The department has created rubble wall fencing to check cattle movements in the forest and the wild boar, blue bulls movements into the farms to check destruction of the crops. This is supported by effective and strong patrolling

  1. Water Supply- water, especially in the summers become the key why lions would stray into the nearby farms and villages. One, they would cause damages to the cattle, farms and mankind. Secondly, they may become victims themselves by falling into unprotected wells. The forest department has been taking various initiatives to ensure supply of water through artificial water holes in the forest, conserving and water harvesting, check dam creation and also building boundary walls around the wells.

  1. Fire Control- Forest fires become good reasons for destruction of forest especially in winters post the dry leaves fall. Proper fire control through fire lines etc has been taken up regularly and further developments are in process for the same.

  1. Traffic and Pollution Control – The Highways passing within the park and rail tracks create pollution and also deaths of animals (11 lions in the last decade). The forest department has been instrumental to check and control road and rail traffic post sunset at many places, lobbying for the same on highways also. There are 20-25 small and medium industries around the forest area and a couple of religious spots which draw 1.5 lac pilgrims every year. The department in its endeavor to protect the forest and the lions are evolving with a comprehensive development and control plans for the same.

  1. Awareness – The Forest departments have been associating with youth to create and spread awareness. Nature Education Camps (NECS) and Forest Youth Clubs (FYC) have been the strategy in wildlife awareness, conservation and management. There are 125 FYCs engaging with all types of Diaspora right from the Maldharis, Local villagers, students, city dwellers and professionals to impart awareness.  Devalia – Gir interpretation centre, a 412 ha of a protected forest area with all wild animals in another example.

  1. Anti-Poaching and allied rules – As compared to other national park, I as a tourist first and then a wildlife activist saw strict following of rules and guidelines, be it permits, the fear / discouragement of locals towards harming the animal and the forests. There is strong patrolling and protection mechanisms to avoid the same besides huge penalties. We hear very seldom of Lion poaching as compared to Tiger poaching news which appear at least once a week today.

Ideally these conservation methods and initiatives have been instrumental in the controlled and increasing number of lions. Today, the World Bank and Global Environmental facility (GEF) have identified Gir as one of its seven sites for eco-development and this speaks in volume.

It was very well explained by Dr. Sandeep Kumar on why the Lions have increased. The same example of a human – if a couple is comfortable that they have a sustainable income, own house and future protection, they would go for a second child. The ones struggling with life today might not want to take the additional burden. It all depends on the environment. Similarly, for lions, if the basic amenities and requirements of life namely – (1) food (enough animals ; from 4000 to 52000 deers, for deers enough grassland due to conservation which gives them confidence to expand the family as they would be able to feed their babies), (2) water (natural and artificial water options), (3) protection from poachers, privacy for sex and life (natural and forest supported) are good, they will have confidence to stay and multiply their family.

As we speak on Gir, one can not avoid the subject these days in the Media on shifting the Lions to MP – this has become a much controversial subject than required, as good as who Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone is dating these days, thanks to the media. But ideally, post visiting Gir and studying the forest and conservation methods in-depth over our visit, what we feel is that with so many number of lions and increasing, the current available infrastructure would be a challenge in the future. More than we, forget the politicians understanding the fact, the lions themselves have started understanding the same and have started moving towards new territories like the coastal area, Girnar, Palitana.

On the same lines, imagine you are working in Mumbai and your company pulls you, gives you more money, but asks you to relocate to Guwahati – what will be your reaction. Similarly, the animal would feel. Look at the tigers of Sariska unable to live in their own surroundings just nearby post relocation, how comfortable would the lion live in the climate of MP which is much different than that of Gujarat.

Now, the question raised by the critics is what if a famine occurs ? Well, the lions are spread all over Saurastra and are migrating naturally to nearby places. The forest department have also planned to relocate (manually) a few lions to Rampara, nearby Wankaner. The threat is not as if all the 411 lions are in one common area, as the normal citizen of India are given to understand (We too thought so, until we understood the same during our visit.) The same innovative central forest ministry should be well equipped to handle such a famine and relocate the lions if anything like that happens overnight and should focus the energies on those lines rather than satisfying some other government by gifting lions to some other state.

Coming to Mr. Modi, let us think from his perspective – why would you want to give your treasure to someone else ? It is evident that he doesn’t mind exchanging the animals with other animals, but those are from his zoos and not the wild. He doesn’t mind giving you a solution for derisking by offering places like Rampara or any other location within Gujarat, thus not giving any chances to the critics, but let us leave this battle to the warriors themselves and the future to see who wins.

One should remember that the Lion knows no border and does not stop by at any toll naka or state border before crossing it. If the animal naturally feels that it requires to move out of Gujarat, it would already be in Rajasthan by the time you finish this blog.

                        IMAGINE THE ADRENALINE RUSH WHEN YOU SEE THE BIG CAT – THE KING OF THE JUNGLE SO CLOSE –
ITS WORTH A 15 DAYS HOLIDAY IN THE SWISS, ITS WORTH A MILLION DOLLAR BET AT THE VEGAS !

Thursday 20 January 2011

PERIYAR TIGER RESERVE- India’s One of the Best Night Safari experience

January 27, 2010, Periyar, Thekkady, Kerala : Siddharth and me along with our spouses planned our annual vacation to Gods own country – Kerala covering Kumarakom, Allepey, Munnar, Backwaters houseboat and Thekkady. Thekkady was our important destination as important like the backwaters or kumarakom and it proved right – 2 core reasons : (1) Wild Life – it’s a national park and a tiger reserve also famous for its elephants (2) This is the only Tiger reserve in the country, where wild life enthusiasts like us can do a NIGHT PATROLING in the JUNGLE which was the core USP for it.


Here, one needs to book in advance with the department of forest and tourism in Thekkady. There are 2 slots only from 7 PM to 10 PM, 10 PM to 1 PM and 1 PM to 4 AM and each slot can take only 5 tourists each. Which means only 15 people can go for this adventurous Night walk in the forest. Ideally, the 5 member team is accompanied by 3 forest guards – 1 with torch and 2 with gun. Ideally, the objective of this activity is to explore the real jungle on feet (3 hrs / 15 kms walk) and contribute to the work of the forest department to patrol and protect the forest from poachers and sandalwood smugglers. Sandalwood is abundant here and the smugglers right from Tamil Nadu and Kerala travel all the way, barefeet in the jungle and cut the sandalwood trees which sells for a huge price. The smuggling of sandalwood is worth Rs 800 Crs per annum and this is more dangerous than the animal poachers. The Nightwalk guards were sharing their experience of once gunning down a gang (they don’t require a permission to shoot at night) and some skinny smugglers clad only in underwear (langot) and no other clothes on the body which was applied with oil, slipped out easily and fled into the dense and thick Periyar forests. For a change, unlike BG and KN they have walky-talkies and high beam torches along with their ammunition quota and they take you along the forest across various topographies – plain, hill, water body, dense forest, mangroves.
 
You pay Rs 1000 per person and when you assemble at the forest gate (we took the 7 PM slot), you register, sign a bond/undertaking declaring that you will be responsible for any accident/loss/death and not the forest department. Then they give you 2 gadgets. 1 Long khakhi leg covers / boot covers which one has to tie to be protected from poisonous insects, leeches and reptiles. (snakes are common). You get a torch (one per couple) which is very powerful. Our torch which we took along from Mumbai had a 300 m beam and the forest torches were 500-600m beam white lights. Flashes in Camera were strict no, talking with each other a strict no, breaking out of the group a strict no (no one needs to tell you not to do it – I Can bet no one lost in the jungle can find his/her way out by own), perfume or deo is a strict no.

     
We began our journey. Sid and Chinly opted out to relax – I believe it was a very big mistake missing this one – well as we proceeded further, post a 15 minute walk entered into the dense forest. The best kicker was to use your torch and explore the jungle and find the animals. The guards would ofcourse show you the animals they sight, with much ease and regular practice. The first life we traced was a herd of deer and that too a few feet away. We saw wild boars – a family of 7-8 – mama, papa and kids whom we followed for 2 minutes and they vanished in a swamp. The best excitement was when we heard huge sounds in the water canal nearby and all of us sped with huge expectations and yes, we found a herd of huge (5 ft in size) Sambhars with beautiful playing in the water and then fleeing away fast as they saw us.

The best part was when we moved from the swampy area to a plain land and across a huge distance the guards showed us a herd of elephants. It was too far and dark to capture so we cherished the live moments, though my video has a dull capture of if. We moved from the plain grass land to a swampy area where we were asked to walk carefully and very slowly to avoid slipping. Some of us did slip a number of times, though.  Our shoes and pants were all muddy by now, but all was worth. Soon we came across a swamy lake like structure and soon saw some movements – as we approached nearer  they were the beavers (seal types who live in swamp and water).

Post all the walk, as usual, we asked the guard – kuch bada dikhao (show us something big and worth) – a tiger or a leopard. But could not sight one, but the guard warned us and asked us to stay absolutely quite. We wondered why and soon he gathered us around some excrete or dung and he said “beware- a sloth bear” around. And the guard too looked a bit tensed and asked us to move fast. That was to avoid an attack, which we too had learned at Kanha – Sloth bears are more dangerous than the tigers or lions as they come from somewhere unexpectedly and start spitting on the victim. The spit / saliva has some acid which starts immediately reacting on the victim and the victim gets distracted. The bear in the meanwhile hides somewhere and jump and attack the victim from the back usually. Ideally the heavy animal does not hit or bang the victim, it uses its sharp claws to simply rip apart the victim – either an animal or human.  Another question which would come to your mind, would be how did the guard come to know from the shit that it was a sloth bear – the answer was that the shit was in round balls and black in color. This is usually the form and there were honey bee and bee nest particles in the shit and bears are know to steal and drink honey – tiger or leopard would never break a bee womb. And how did he know the bear was near –the shot was steamy soft and fresh and well, it’s the forest guards duty or skill to know all this.

Then we moved into a hilly terrain and finally I was getting too tired. We were again warned not to react if we see an elephant nearby, though we did not. It was said that if one reacts before a wild elephant, he is gone and if you behave like a good and silent boy the giant would not harm you. Soon we reached the forest gate post the most adventurous forest trip of ours. The night safari in Singapore was a made up one unlike this one – exciting, unexpected and unpredictable and that’s what wild is all about.

In the day we did a morning boat ride in the Periyar lake – saw many birds, eagles, seals, wild buffalos. This was worth too (Rs 60 per person). There are also other wild tourism options like bamboo floating ( you float on a bamboo raft in the eater throughout the day in the jungle, a day long trek on the hills and many more – most of the tourists would be foreigners while the Indian counterparts would be busy getting the Kerala Massage or doing Kerala spice shopping - we were short of time as the rest of the trip was planned and Sid would not have appreciated more of Wild life so left it for the future !