Beyond Boundaries: Reimagining Wildlife Tourism In India

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 4, April 2024

By Bhavya Iyer

A group of about nine people, including us instructors, we appear to be following in the footsteps of a big cat as we slowly wind our way up the slope. Local guides lead us along this trail in the buffer. Despite being frequented by locals, signs of wildlife are aplenty here – a fresh scratch mark in the soil, a pungent, basmati rice-like scent accompanying it. Large, definitely-belongs-to-a-tiger scat, increasingly fresh as we follow the trail. Alarm calls start up and stop – sambar, chital, and barking deer. The children’s excited chatter is hard to contain even as we stop to watch birds – despite its red cap and cyan throat, the Blue-throated Barbet Psilopogon asiaticus blends into the foliage of the lantana, and a Common Green Magpie Cissa chinensis teases us with its whistling call, but doesn’t show itself.

A bird’s-eye view of the Vanghat Lodge along the Ramganga river. People want to experience nature and get their boots muddy as they trek trails, led by experienced local guides. With ecotourism on the rise, the opportunities to benefit local people and wildlife conservation are growing. Photo: Nishit Gupta.

Suddenly the forest falls quiet, unusually so. The birds are conspicuous in their silence, and the feeling of being watched prickles at the back of my neck. We continue on our way. This short trek is on a trail in the buffer of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, and the students are here as part of a nature education programme held at the Vanghat Lodge. They are being initiated into the varied moods of a forest. Right now, I notice the lack of birdsong, and wonder if it could be an indicator that something is present, and is watching. We point out trees and shrubs along the way. Sal Shorea robusta dominates, but there is also the tree with heart-shaped leaves Haldina cordifolia, or haldu, which lends the town of Haldwani its name; the beloved-by-elephants rohini or Mallotus philippensis, and fig species – Ficus arnottiana and Ficus religiosa. The silk cotton tree Bombax ceiba isn’t flowering yet; when it does, mixed flocks of birds will throng the branches laden with bright-red flowers, and Black Bulbuls will bully the other species, staking claim over the flower nectar. Lantana is regrettably taking over the undergrowth even here, and we curse the seed-dispersing Red-vented Bulbuls that we spot feeding on the invasive fruits.

If you want to see the forest with a new perspective, take a small group of school or college-aged students on a nature trail. For them, everything is fresh and new, and their enthusiasm will rekindle your own, reminding you why you first fell in love with nature.

One of the students breathlessly wields a tuft of orange-brown fur he found lying on the trail, and the group’s excitement over finding this ‘tiger fur’ can’t be contained. To my amusement, they don’t want to hear that it’s likely barking deer fur, when I point out how soft the fur is. Not bristly at the end, like the strands of tiger fur we found embedded in marks clawed into the bark of a Toona ciliata tree just the other day.

Despite the many signs, we don’t actually see or even expect to see a big cat on the trek, yet this is likely one of the most unforgettable nature experiences for these kids. Nature trails such as these and those conducted by Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Kids for Tigers programme connect thousands of children from across the country with the biodiversity around them. By engaging all their senses and introducing children to the wondrous wildlife in their backyards and urban areas, kids can connect with the environment in a way that cannot take place in the classroom. Moments such as these, where we walk amid nature and learn of its many ways, understand the behaviour of wildlife, and seek answers – who, what, when, where, why – seem to unlock something in our brains, a deeper appreciation and concern for the environment. And we protect what we love.

A wildlife biologist guiding participants of a nature education programme on a nature trail. Nature trails can help connect kids and adults alike with the environment around them, by generating curiosity for all living creatures. Photo: Bhavya Iyer.

Reimagining Wildlife Tourism

Such experiences, where you can truly immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and scents of a wild space, are lost when the focus shifts from connecting with the ecologies of a place to ‘sighting’ a tiger or other charismatic megafauna. Mass wildlife tourism has commodified the tiger – a beautiful, endangered animal – and other megafauna that undoubtedly require continued conservation attention. But it is just one part of the larger ecosystem,
which involves interactions between hundreds and thousands of species, including humans. If visitors are focusing only on whether or not they saw the tiger, we have lost a major opportunity to connect them to nature, and help them understand the need for wildlife conservation.

The UN Tourism office, for example, lists characteristics of ecotourism as: 1) the main motivation of tourists being the appreciation of nature and traditional cultures of an area; 2) minimal negative impact on local communities and ecologies; 3) small groups led by specialised tourism operators; 4) working in partnership with local communities; 5) a nature education or interpretation component; and 6) the accrual of benefits to local communities as well as nature.

The current safari-based mass tourism model is certainly not aligned with these principles. Safaris have made wildlife tourism much more accessible, introduced a lasting love of wildlife in many a child who has gone on to become a conservationist (myself included), contributed to local economies and provided much-needed funds for the management of PAs. Yet wildlife tourism doesn’t have to be confined to PAs, and done right, with an emphasis on nature education without harming wildlife, it creates a legion of people passionate about conservation for its innate value.

A resident adult male tiger captured on a camera trap placed as part of a nature education programme at Vanghat, Ramnagar. Diversifying the activities available to tourists beyond safaris by advocating for low-impact activities in buffer areas and outside PAs can help popularise ecotourism. Photo: Bhavya Iyer.

This emphasis on conservation and education is a crucial part of developing a win-win-win tourism model that benefits local communities, visitors, and wildlife. Without protecting natural habitats and wild denizens, there can be no wildlife tourism, and hence no income. Integrating research, habitat restoration and rewilding efforts beyond PAs further contributes to ecological, financial and climate security. And a unique wildlife experience that doesn’t break the bank and imbibes a love of the outdoors is beneficial to tourists, particularly children, who are growing up increasingly divorced from the natural world. This is part of the rationale behind places such as Vanghat, the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, and the COCOON Conservancies.

People want to experience nature in its raw form, and to get their boots muddy as they trek trails, led by experienced local guides. This also opens up avenues for employment as nature guides and homestay owners. With interest and awareness about such offbeat tourism on the rise around India, the opportunities to benefit local people as well as contribute to wildlife conservation are also growing. For instance, Sanctuary’s Mud on Boots Project Leaders Sahebram and Chamru Bediya have been building an eco-tourism model to provide sustainable livelihoods to community members in Koynardih, Jharkhand, helping them generate income through trekking events already.

The presence of leopards within the Western Ghats tea and coffee plantations underscores the need for sustainable land-use practices. Protecting habitat corridors and minimising conflict is key to the survival of these magnificent predators. Photo: Saurabh Sawant.

The Local Touch

Safari-based tourism has not always translated into greater benefits to local communities. A 2021 study in Ranthambhore found that safari-based mass tourism had minimal direct tangible benefits to the local communities. The colonial remnant that is fortress conservation may have protected many forests, but by the forced eviction of marginalised tribal and Indigenous communities who once lived there. Today many communities that live on the fringes of PAs have never had the opportunity to experience such safaris themselves. However, there is greater recognition of this historical injustice. In Sawai Madhopur, Kids for Tigers works with local communities, taking them on safaris within the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve – a unique experience for most of these folk. Empowering local communities to manage ecotourism provides a financial incentive to preserve these ecosystems, which can also act as wildlife corridors. Noting that local communities are the best protectors of the forest, Govardhan Meena, Kids for Tigers Coordinator in Sawai Madhopur, says, “Our people revere nature. If they are assured crop compensation, dignified jobs and real respect, they will be the best protection force for tigers. Yes, there are some who want to move away from the forest… and we should help them move out so both people and wildlife will be happy and safe.”

Speaking with a local woman from Ringora village near Ramnagar, in the buffer of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, was eye-opening. Vimla ji is part of a women’s self-help group called Harela, which runs a shop selling products grown or made by locals. People here have been affected by human-wildlife conflict, from crop raiding to big cat mauling. Her village was relocated from the reserve when it expanded a few decades ago and is under pressure to relocate again. The residents resist – they are intimately tied to their land, their forests, and their wildlife. Usually soft-spoken, Vimla ji’s voice is frustrated yet wry as she says, “We are told to move from our villages, to shut down our tea shops because we disturb wildlife. But the big hotels that host weddings and DJ parties with loud music, are these not disturbing wildlife?” Her words are a warning reminder of the harm caused to local communities in the name of wildlife conservation, even while the true offenders – usually wealthy and influential – manage to dodge the blame.

A tiger being followed by safari jeeps in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is a reminder that the current safari-based mass tourism model is not aligned with the principles of sustainable tourism or ecotourism, and can be harmful for wildlife. Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

It would be pragmatic to remember that it is often the local communities who have contributed to the rise of a particular area as a wildlife tourism hotspot. Shashank Birla, naturalist and Founder, Wilderlust Expeditions LLP, believes it is the local communities who have built the foundation to boost tourism. He credits local guides who took their passion for birding to the next level by extensively searching local habitats, such as a patch of ignored reed beds and a desolate grassland, for rare ‘catches’ for birders who would travel extensively just for a glimpse of the rarity. “These travellers in turn share their experiences both on a personal basis as well as on social media. This in turn gets picked up by mainstream media, the coverage compounds, and voilà! You have a new wildlife tourism destination on the map!” says Birla. Taking the example of Jawai, a small, once-nondescript village in Rajasthan, he says, “It is an entirely new destination that arose because the local community understood the movements and habits of its resident leopards so well, ensured their protection, worked together on accessibility and infrastructure to guarantee a great guest experience, placing it among the top leopard viewing destinations in India, if not the world.”

The onus is on tourists to be more mindful of the kind of experiences and practises they are engaging in, as well as on operators and service providers to raise awareness amongst visitors and maintain ethical best practices. Sumantha Ghosh, owner of the eco-lodge Vanghat in Ramnagar, says, “Visitors are never good or bad. What is important is the experiences we create, according to which visitors come, and their expectations have to be set. Tour operators tend to smile and say yes to everything, so you see guides playing calls to attract endangered birds during their breeding season, just so these ‘ecotourists’ get a sighting. It shouldn’t be like that. When an average person comes to our area, it’s important that they go back as an ambassador for nature, wanting to do something to conserve nature, even in some small way.”

School kids watching birds during a Kids for Tigers nature trail in Kolkata. By engaging all their senses and introducing children to the wondrous wildlife in their backyards and urban areas, kids can connect with the environment in a way that cannot take place in the classroom. Photo: Sanctuary Photolibrary.

Low On Impact, High On Satisfaction

Diversifying the activities available to tourists beyond safaris can be the first step, as recommended in a study on ecotourism research in India. Birdwatching, trekking, camping, night walks to observe nocturnal species, or short homestays with local communities, and other low-impact activities can be encouraged, outside PAs. This could contribute to breaking the chokehold tiger-driven tourism has over the bulk of wildlife tourism in India, by making other experiences more accessible and enjoyable for tourists – and hopefully, drawing them back again and again.

Instituting a strict, science-based carrying capacity of people and vehicles in PAs and diverting excess footfall to surrounding areas could help mitigate some of the impacts of mass tourism in the more popular PAs such as Corbett, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Tadoba, Bandipur and Kabini. Instead of booking multiple rounds of safaris in the core zones, tourists can be encouraged by tour operators and the Forest Department to participate in other sustainable, low-impact activities outside the PA boundaries.

The scope for low-impact ecotourism activities is immense. On the outskirts of Panna, visitors can take a walk with the Pardhi community. Once nomadic hunters, people of the Pardhi community are expert trackers. They can be involved in nature education efforts as resource-persons who can impart their traditional knowledge. Integrating traditional knowledge sharing sessions with people of other communities as well, such as the Baiga and Gonds, would also be a novel approach. In Ringora village on the outskirts of Corbett, you can visit the shop run by a local women’s self-help group, Harela, and even eat a traditional Kumaoni meal. In Tadoba, tourists could be encouraged to spend time birdwatching by one of the reservoirs such as the Irai dam. Elopa is a Community Conserved Area in Dibang Valley, declared by the Idu Mishmi on their ancestral lands to preserve wildlife. Boating in Periyar, visiting the handicraft workshop Dastkar in Sawai Madhopur, interacting with Baiga and buying handmade jewellery in Kanha – the opportunities are endless.

Reesna Pardhi is one of the first Skill India-certified nature guides in India, and the first Pardhi to work as a nature guide at the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. She was one of the guides who led the MPT Responsible Tourism team for a ‘Walk with the Pardhis’ experience. Photo Courtesy: Gaurav Shirodkar/LWF Media Library.

All Pain, No Gain?

In discussions on the need for low-impact sustainable ecotourism, the financial barrier is often glossed over. Input costs are high, and such capital is not available to local communities without external investment, which further exacerbates issues of land ownership and makes the more-profitable mass tourism model attractive. Without government or industry support, local communities find it impossible to float the kind of costs required for infrastructure. Even then, ecotourism revenue is often seasonal. In the Northeast and Himalayan regions, for example, rains can be a dampener on all but the most determined tourists during the monsoons, while most tiger reserves close entirely for two to three months a year. Baruah da, who runs the recently set-up Tesia Camp in Harmuti, Assam, says, “Although there is some limited income from tourism, it’s sporadic. I wish the government would provide support so that there is a more steady income.” (“Misa kotha kio kom, eman benefit tu huwa nai. Guest ahilei olop paisa pau. Nohole tu income nai. Government e kiba jodi hohai kore, te bhal hobo.”)

This sentiment is echoed by Ghosh. “The problem with low impact and sustainable tourism is that at the policy level there are no perks. We are all measured by the same yardstick as mass tourism by the government. Small enterprises, camps, homestays and such things aren’t able to compete with the mass tourism experiences, be it in terms of pricing or the tax structures. In Uttarakhand, the idea of community-based tourism was mooted when the state was formed. There were talks about more homestays, and more government help for locals to build small camps or guesthouses, but sadly after about 24 years, we don’t see any of that on the ground. It’s all big hotels, with their negative impacts, that are prevailing today.” With the absence of any tourism policy for PAs and fragile landscapes, rampant construction is endangering threatened landscapes, cutting off wildlife corridors and even resulting in increased landslides, such as what took place in Himachal in August 2023. With climate change causing increasingly erratic rainfall patterns and flooding, such incidents are only going to exacerbate in the future.

Building long-term resilience into ecotourism initiatives is a necessity, to prepare for situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as climate change and biodiversity loss increase the risks associated with these ventures. Exploring avenues for funding such as CSR, wielded responsibly, and government support may go a long way in ensuring that more local communities are able to set up and run ecotourism associated ventures, while ensuring long-term viability and a fair income for those involved, without compromising on habitat health. Enforcing sustainability and ecotourism certifications, such as that done by TOFTigers, if based on solid scientific parameters, can act as guidelines to balance environment and tourism development. This will also help visitors make informed decisions when choosing a place to stay.

To ensure that wildlife is conserved while also bolstering opportunities for local marginalised communities, the way we think of wildlife tourism must shift away from safaris and chain hotels, and instead towards ‘slow’ tourism centred around conservation and nature education, as a part of a new paradigm of ecotourism. Where we prioritise giving back to nature, rather than extracting from it. As economist Partha Dasgupta says in The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, “Humanity now faces a choice: we can continue down a path where our demands on Nature far exceed Nature’s capacity to supply them on a sustainable basis; or we can take a different path, one where our engagements with Nature are not only sustainable but also enhance our collective well-being and the well-being of our descendants.” By encouraging mindful wildlife experiences, perhaps more people will connect more intimately with the environment and its inhabitants, without further marginalising those who live on the fringes of these areas, and instead involving and learning from them. The only thing stopping us is a lack of imagination.

Bhavya Iyer is a wildlife biologist and nature writer interested in environmental policy and conservation education. She is an Assistant Editor at Sanctuary Asia and a member of RewildEd, an organisation working to bridge the gap between people and nature.

Wildlife, Plantations, and a Path to Coexistence
Lessons from India’s Western Ghats

By Saurabh Sawant
A mosaic of fragmented forests and tea and coffee plantations, the biodiverse Western Ghats offer clues into how conserving these landscapes can benefit both wildlife and local communities, through ecotourism.
The lush landscapes of India’s Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offer a beguiling mix – remnants of ancient rainforests interspersed with the meticulous rows of tea and coffee plantations established during British colonial times. This unique tapestry holds both wonder and a vital lesson in the intricate balance between conservation and human enterprise.
My own fascination with these landscapes began with childhood visits to the picturesque hill stations of south India. Yet, over the years, as I worked alongside researchers and led photography expeditions, I discovered a world far more complex than those initial impressions suggested. These plantations are biodiversity hotspots, teeming with life. The ‘edge effect’, where forest fragment meets plantation, amplifies this richness. Gaur, those massive wild bovines, and elephants navigate these landscapes, while leopards hunt under the cover of plantation foliage.
A nighttime encounter drives this point home. On a photography expedition on a plantation edge, the symphony of the night forest hummed around us. Suddenly, a flash of movement caught my eye. A sleek outline, a blur of muscle and grace, emerged from the undergrowth, hurriedly climbing a silver oak trunk. The unmistakable form of a leopard cat, its eyes glinting in the torchlight, clutched a rodent in its jaws. Our collective breath hitched as it tensed – a small Indian civet rustling amongst the leaves underneath. The ensuing chase, a blur of feline agility, was over in a heartbeat. The civet, perhaps drawn to the scent of the caught morsel, foiled in its quest for an easy meal, eventually vanished into the dense vegetation as the cat ascended to safety.
This encounter, both thrilling and a reminder of the delicate predator-prey dynamics within the plantations, highlighted the importance of these fragmented habitats. While some species struggle with shrinking forests, others, such as the leopard cat, have adapted to the altered landscape.
Another memorable experience was while observing a troop of lion-tailed macaques, an endangered species emblematic of the Western Ghats. The sunlight dappled through the leaves of the remaining shade trees, providing a haven for these magnificent creatures. Families with playful youngsters bickered over grooming rights, while the silver-maned males surveyed their domain with watchful eyes. Witnessing their complex social interactions amidst the cultivated rows served as a poignant reminder of the vital role these remaining forest fragments play in their survival. Because although these species make use of the plantations effectively, they can’t survive on them alone without the adjoining pristine forests.
However, the allure of wildlife encounters is tempered by the harsh reality of shrinking habitats and escalating human-wildlife conflict. I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear and frustration of villagers after elephants or gaur raid crops, events that can endanger human lives. On one memorable – and slightly terrifying – occasion, a panicked search ensued when I was mistaken for a dacoit in the darkness of an elephant-infested forest! The alarmed calls of the villagers, gathered to drive me away with noise, shifted abruptly to concern for my safety when they realised their mistake. These experiences underscore the urgent need for solutions that protect both people and wildlife as resources dwindle.

Elephants find sustenance and pathways within the Western Ghats' plantations. Their movement underscores the importance of connectivity between fragmented wildlife habitats. Photo: Saurabh Sawant.

Yet, a shift is happening. Ecotourism offers a powerful incentive for conservation-minded change. I’ve been privileged to visit responsible lodges that demonstrate how showcasing their natural heritage can generate income and instil local pride. Initiatives such as the Nature Conservation Foundation’s Elephant Hills project provide concrete solutions, from early warning systems to community stewardship programmes. Their Rainforest Restoration Project highlights the importance of reconnecting vital wildlife corridors – a reminder that plantations cannot thrive in isolation.
Ecotourism initiatives in plantations such as Honey Valley in Coorg offer an inspiring model, which is popular among herpetologists and macro photographers. But the potential for wildlife experiences extends even for birds and mammals into the hidden corners of plantations. Aggal Sivalingam, a skilled guide and wildlife photographer in the Nilgiris, has created a simple birding hide behind his home, transforming his backyard into a haven for enthusiasts, and demonstrating the surprising wildlife encounters possible within the plantations themselves. In collaboration with local guides, wildlife photographers, birders, filmmakers and visitors can discover unexpected treasures within the estates. A simple hide near a tea plantation might hold surprises such as the painted bush quail, revealing the potential of community-based conservation and showcasing how ecotourism directly benefits both wildlife and local communities.
This delicate equilibrium requires a multifaceted approach. Understanding the historical pressures driving land-use change is essential, as is transitioning to biodiversity-sensitive plantation practices. Coffee grown under the shade of native trees mimics natural forest conditions, providing habitat for countless species without sacrificing yields. Models such as Black Baza Coffee demonstrate that ethically-sourced, wildlife-friendly products command premium prices, driving positive change on a broader scale.
The Western Ghats plantations offer a microcosm of the global challenge of reconciling conservation with development. They remind us that human enterprise and thriving ecosystems are not mutually exclusive. By fostering sensitivity, supporting sustainable agriculture, promoting responsible ecotourism, restoring essential forest habitat, and raising awareness through initiatives such as those by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, we can secure a future for both the wild Western Ghats and the communities who call this magnificent landscape home.
The future of the Western Ghats holds both promise and challenge. During a recent expedition, a particularly exciting discovery unfolded. Some friends gained rare access to a tea plantation, allowing us to witness a playful group of four leopard cubs exploring the edges of the plantation. Two of these cubs, melanistic (popularly called black panthers) with striking emerald eyes, were a rare and unforgettable sight. Their presence, alongside their watchful parents, offered a glimmer of hope. It served as a reminder of the incredible resilience of wildlife and the potential for coexistence, given the right support and a holistic conservation approach.
As you take a sip of your tea or smell the morning coffee, this conversation must continue to explore solutions, and ensure that the symphony of the wild Western Ghats plays on, in harmony with the enduring spirit of its people.
Saurabh Sawant, Consultant, Projects and Natural History at the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, is a wildlife researcher, naturalist, wildlife photographer and filmmaker, and his work has been widely published.


COCOON Conservancies
Sanctuary’s  COCOON Conservancies bring together rewilding and restoration efforts with community participation and empowerment to create lasting change.
Sanctuary’s Community Owned Community Operated Nature (COCOON) Conservancies are rewilding initiatives outside of PAs that combine habitat restoration with development of alternative livelihoods for forest-fringe communities. Launched in 2014, the Conservancies aim to demonstrate how rewilding can help moderate climatic extremes, while delivering social and environmental paybacks. The project is based on an innate belief that communities living closest to our most biodiverse wonderlands deserve to be the primary beneficiaries and custodians of our vanishing biodiversity.
The initiative works to expand the size and improve the quality of habitat available to wildlife by encouraging local communities to convert their own marginal and failed farms back to a natural wild state. The land-holding will continue to be in the hands of the community, but would serve as biodiverse nature refuges capable of offering communities assured livelihoods and economic security in an era of climate change. The Conservancies, in varying stages of development, are the staging grounds for future community-led ecotourism initiatives. As part of the Global Rewilding Alliance (GRA), which involves over 150 organisations, these areas will be restored with native vegetation, to create biogeographically suitable habitats for a diversity of species.
Mulai COCOON Conservancy, Assam
Mulai began as the dream of one man, Jadav Payeng, the Forest Man of India, who turned a dry Brahmaputra sandbar into a dense native forest called Mulai Kathoni, or Mulai’s Forest, where all manners of wild species including rhinos, elephants, the occasional tiger, and insects of all descriptions have found safe haven. Building on the legacy of her father, Munmuni Payeng, Sanctuary’s Young Naturalist Awardee, is on a rewilding mission in collaboration with local community members. Mulai is one of the newest Cocoon Conservancies and, with the support of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and Raj Phukan of Assam’s Green Guard Nature Foundation, has begun to extend the scope of the rewilding project using the seeds and saplings collected from the flourishing Mulai Kathoni itself.
SAI COCOON Conservancy, Karnataka
The story of the SAI Sanctuary, a private protected forest in the Kodagu district of Karnataka, dates back to 1991, when about 55 acres of the once-barren land was bought by Anil and Pamela Malhotra to turn into a haven for wildlife. Decades later, this relatively large parcel of land has been transformed into a 300-acre sanctuary that is home to king cobras, Great Hornbills, and often elephants and tigers too. The sanctuary is off-grid and hosts unharvested coffee and cardamom trees along with an impressive number of avian species common with the nearby Nagarahole Tiger Reserve!
Panna COCOON Conservancy, Madhya Pradesh
In the land of the emerald tigers, the Sanctuary Nature Foundation has teamed up with the Baavan (Bagh Aap Aur Van) Trust, which works with village communities to engage youth through capacity building, alternative livelihoods, and training as nature guides. The objective is to find ways by which farming and livestock rearing can be undertaken without conflict, to create space for Panna’s expanding herbivore and carnivore numbers by reducing crop damage and to increase climate resilience.
The idea is also to work in concert with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department to help communities to earn livelihoods as young naturalist-guides, by conducting visitors through rewilded trails within the 50 sq. km. Reserved Forest zone abutting their wildlife-friendly villages. A major collateral benefit would be the fact that women would be afforded the freedom of choice to engage in community welfare occupations of their own choosing.
Sawai Madhopur COCOON Conservancy, Rajasthan
On the outskirts of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, where over 40 years ago Sanctuary Asia was first conceived, Sanctuary is working on a land and river rejuvenation programme inspired by and in consonance with, the United Nations’ World Water Day (March 22, 2024) theme, declared as Water Peace Year.
The decision to undertake this initiative, with the help and assistance of the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), was announced at the People’s Peace and Water Summit by way of an MOU signed by Sanctuary’s founder, Bittu Sahgal and the Tarun Bharat Sangh Founder, Rajendra Singh.
Led by Govardhan Meena, a local Meena tribal leader, the geography of the new initiative will lie in the catchment area between the Banas river (which originates in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve) and the Chambal river, whose catchment area has already witnessed TBS’ successful land and river rejuvenation in the catchment area of the Sherni river, which flows into the Chambal. Support comes from Sanctuary’s longtime partners, Morningstar, whose partnership with Sanctuary has initially been signed on for three years, 2024-2027.
Like Gothangaon, one of our early COCOON Conservancies, this will be a greenfield rewilding exercise on farm land. Over the last few years no sowing was done and the land is being reclaimed by the forest, becoming hospitable enough for a tigress with four cubs to use the land as a staging ground.
Along with these budding projects, another Conservancy will be set up on a 27-acre coffee plantation outside the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, which hasn’t been harvested in 20 years. These Conservancies will receive support from the Sanctuary Nature Foundation for the first few years until the initiatives are able to stand independently on their feet. Each of these Conservancies is a community-based project outside of Protected Areas. The initiatives rely on rewilding and regeneration of forests, biodiversity and water to create and restore wildlife habitats and provide an alternative source of income for local communities. Over a longer term, the aim is to set up COCOON Conservancy Research Stations, continue biodiversity and socioeconomic documentation, and grow ecotourism initiatives along with healthcare and sanitation.


‘Hide’ing in Plain Sight – Tesia Camp
By Sutirtha Lahiri
The Tesia Camp in Assam was set up by a group of birders on the outskirts of the Bogoli Reserve Forest in the hope that people would flock to this site in search of elusive endemic species.
“If announcing your arrival has a name, it would be the Grey-bellied Tesia,” I thought as a continuous loud chirp began from the bush to my right. The sound grew progressively closer. The bird’s arrival was also marked by random movements in the understorey. I knew it would show anytime now, in the stream in front of me. And then I heard the sound that sank my heart, a weird whirr from my camera. It was out of commission.
It was exactly at that moment that the Grey-bellied Tesia Tesia cyaniventer – a bird found only in Northeast India – emerged from the undergrowth, looked at us, and dipped for a bath. Looking through my binocular, the dirty yellow on its head, the black eyebrow, and its overly grey body were beautifully visible. The most noticeable feature was the absolute lack of any tail – it was almost as if someone had deliberately plucked out a tail that really should have been there. I have seen this species many times, but always for less than a half-second as it flitted within the darkest vegetation. Ask any birder, and they would agree that three minutes is a lot of time with a bird. That is how long this little tesia tauntingly bathed in front of that tiny hide – aptly named the Tesia Camp, in one of the most biodiverse and little-known lowland forests of Upper Assam.
The story of this hide is as much the story of the one who found it. Baruah da, a resident of Shantipur village, across the Bogoli Reserve Forest, would go into the forest to collect dry firewood or to ensure that others were not hunting. He would often see birds in a small stream that channels through a shady forested grove, in front of a large outenga (elephant apple) tree. He informed a few enthusiastic birders who were delighted to spend hours here, observing varied species; often lifers. From morning to evening, like clockwork, birds would arrive, species which are otherwise rare, shy, elusive, hard-to-see Northeast Indian understorey birds. Soon, they set up a hide, assessed safety – primarily from elephants – and began the Tesia Camp.

A Slaty-bellied Tesia Tesia olivea, one of the birds for which Tesia Camp has been named. Seen in India only in the Northeast, tesias can be hard to spot amidst the dense undergrowth. Photo: Vijay Kashyap.
I was visiting them in February 2024, as part of my Ph.D. research on grassland birds. I contacted Jugal Borah – an avid birder and one of the founders of the Tesia Camp, who promptly offered a place for me to stay at their family home here. On the first morning, as the auto pulled up to the rocky road leading to the house, I saw the forest lined with flowering silk cotton trees. Post chai and breakfast, I headed to the hide with Jugal, a visitor from Tezpur and Baruah da, an old but hardy man in his sixties, who led the way. Crossing the road into the forest, we passed by one of the most gigantic ficus trees I have ever seen, too big to capture a photo even on a wide-angle camera. The track gingered through trees and lantana bushes, up a few steep slopes and down to a small stream. Following the stream, we found a makeshift hide – with branches and sticks, offering sufficient cover from the birds which, I was told, would come in front of us! We sat down, and the waiting game began.
There is something incredibly satisfying about watching birds after patiently waiting for a long time. As someone who is otherwise very impatient, waiting for birds over long hours is very difficult. Sitting in that hide, waiting for something to come and take a bath, reminded me of my first field job, studying the feeding behaviour of hornbills. I would conduct the same ritual; set up a hide, find a sturdy spot to unfold the chair, and wait, while also simultaneously keeping my ears peeled for elephants. But just as gratifying as it was to finally see a hornbill fly into the nest to feed its mate, it was equally so when the first bird came to the stream in front of us – an elegant White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti! A jet black and white bird with a very forked tail, the forktail hopped about in the stream, flipping big rocks and leaves to look for unsuspecting grubs. Very soon, other birds joined in, from Pygmy Flycatchers Muscicapella hodgsoni and Small and Rufous-bellied Niltavas Niltava macgrigoriae and Niltava sundara, to Pale Blue and Pale-chinned Flycatchers, Cyornis unicolor and Cyornis poliogenys, and finally, a White-tailed Robin Myiomela leucura! All these birds, otherwise difficult to spot in the open, especially for more than a few moments, were now in front of us, bathing to their hearts content – and our delight.

Over the next few days, whenever I had a chance, I would sit in the hide, accompanying the tourists of that day. From big flocks of Silver-eared Mesias Leiothrix argentauris literally lighting up the undergrowth with their extravagant colours, to the very secretive Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris, and a White-browed Piculet Sasia ochracea peeking through the branch above us, I had quite a few memorable encounters. None of these, however, match the excitement of seeing the female of each of these species. Otherwise uniformly brown and unassuming, the females had complexities, which I had previously overlooked. As I tried my hand at sketching them in my journal later, I realised even their shades of brown varied. The Small Niltava female, for instance, had a blue shoulder patch, which separated it from the Rufous-bellied Niltava, that has a white throat. The White-tailed Robin female had a darker brown-olive back and a chocolate brown tail, which contrasted so well with the white tail streaks that they resembled an animal’s fangs.

Spending time here over one month has made me acutely aware of the ecological crisis that is unfolding in the fragile northeastern Himalaya. On account of rapid land-use change induced by hydroelectric dams on the Subansiri river, many of the ecologically important sites have eroded into oblivion. The patches that remain are also under multiple stressors. In the face of this rapid ecological degradation, perhaps this little haven inside a reserve forest offers a certain hope; a hope that if that tiny stream flows unobstructed, the birds will continue to arrive and take a bath and we may, with enough patience, be privy to it.
Sutirtha is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, USA. He studies grasslands, integrating his love for birds, conservation and policy. He is also a freelance writer, focusing on natural history and conservation. In his free time, he reads and sketches in his diary. You can contact Tesia Camp on Facebook or Instagram.


In Corbett’s Footsteps – Vanghat Lodge
By Kushagra Meshram
Accessed by a river crossing via raft and with a focus on minimal impact, the remote Vanghat Lodge on the outskirts of the Corbett Tiger Reserve draws birders from across the world.
As the Ramganga river winds its way through a bend in the valley, nestled between sandy banks and steep hills, the tranquil scene is brought to life by the morning sun as it casts its golden rays upon the water. The overhanging branches of syzygium trees provide a safe, shaded haven for a school of golden mahseer, seeking refuge in the deep pools formed by the river’s flow. The call of a Pallas’s Fish Eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus breaks the silence of the valley, while a family of otters playfully pop their heads above the water’s surface.
In the distance, a Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis glides across the valley, its heavy wings beating through the air before perching on a Ficus rumphii tree, its loud grunt-like calls echoing through the valley. Nearby, a group of goral, Himalayan goat-antelopes, blend seamlessly into the rocky cliffs. Even on the death-defyingly steep slope, a kid frolics around its mother, occasionally head-butting its cousins. Amidst the serene backdrop, the sound of a barking deer reverberates through the air, followed by the distant alarm call of a sambar. A mixed flock of birds, including Black-lored Tits, Indian White-eyes, and various bulbuls, flit among the upper canopy of a rohini tree, their vibrant plumage adding to the tapestry of life in the forest.
This symphony of nature, composed of the gentle flow of the river and the harmonious melodies of birds and animals, envelops the path of the Ramganga river as it meanders from the southern slopes of Dudhatoli Hill in Uttarakhand into the Jim Corbett National Park. Along its journey, it passes through quaint villages and towns, each brimming with their own unique charm and natural beauty. Locals say these wilds were once popular haunts for Jim Corbett himself.

A barking deer Muntiacus muntjak picks its way through Vanghat. Run as an ‘ecolodge’ with a conservation ethos, Vanghat tries to minimise human impact on the surrounding landscape by maintaining native vegetation. Photo: Kushagra Meshram.
Satish ji, a member of the Vanghat staff for many years, shares stories of Barghat village, a picturesque stretch of the river from where the name ‘Vanghat’ originates. Established in 2003, the Vanghat Lodge has become renowned for its exceptional birding opportunities, boasting over 270 species year-round in its vicinity. With no network connectivity – unless you walk 100 m. beyond the encircling electric fence to the riverbed, visits to the lodge are a wonderful digital detox and wildlife adventure in one.
Run as an ‘ecolodge’ with a conservation ethos, Vanghat tries to minimise human impact on the surrounding landscape. Most of the dwellings are made of mud or stone, in a local style. There are no gardens or lawns – the habitat within the lodge is similar to that of the surrounding nature trails, but for the trails that connect the rooms with the open-air eating area, which overlooks a bird bath. A one-tusked male is a frequent visitor to the area around the lodge, and tigers prowl down Champion’s Trail, named for the Imperial Forest Service Officer and wildlife photographer F.W. Champion. Walking the riverbed is an exercise in playing wildlife detective, with a plethora of animal signs – pugmarks, hoof marks, pellets, scats and scrape marks –  left behind in the sands to analyse the movement of animals the previous night.
Beyond birdwatching, the lodge actively engages in conservation efforts, collaborating with the community to tackle challenges such as the removal of invasive lantana bushes and promoting the stewardship of wild areas for the benefit of all. Intensive lantana removal efforts on the land around the lodge and by the river over the last year have resulted in the growth of a mostly-native grassland. This is drawing more ungulates, and where the prey go, predators follow – including a rather heavy-set adult male tiger fondly known as Golu.
As I sit by the river on a camping chair, documenting the wonders of the morning, the intensity of the barking deer’s call increases, signalling a shift in the forest’s dynamics. Across the river, a tiger prowls cautiously down the rocky slopes, probably mistaking me for a boulder until I move, and it looks at me with a snarl before vanishing into the undergrowth, leaving an indelible mark on my memory.
Kushagra Meshram is an alumnus of the Master’s programme of the Wildlife Institute of India. His current research focuses on the interface of conservation policy, education and sustainable tourism. You can contact Vanghat on Facebook, Instagram, or their website.


Climbing the Post-COVID Hill
– Jabarkhet Nature Reserve

By Neha Sinha
Walk at your own pace at Jabarkhet. One of the few private nature reserves in the country, Jabarkhet aims to demonstrate how conservation can be a viable economic model for landowners and local communities.
On the mountain, various kinds of green shield us from the sun. There is the deep, bottle green of the deodar, which stands with a straight back and arrows upward towards the sun. There is the merry, silver-streaked green of oak trees, with leaves with a back of silver, growing horizontally as well as vertically – a veritable leaf cumulonimbus cloud. There is the bright, shiny green of rhododendron trees – spring-water touched, the fresh green of the wax crayons you used as a child.
We are in the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, just off the town of Mussoorie. It is June, and the little hill station throngs with people from the city, and their city-centred demands: buying shoes for the whole family in everyone’s favourite colour, sometimes also for a pet. Processed food you can eat on sticks, no hands needed, ice cream in lurid colours, and snacks that make their presence felt by the wrappers that are in gutters, on slopes, and under cars. The sudden silence of Jabarkhet feels like a tea-cosy has fallen over our ears. And now, we have to climb the slopes.
You go to the mountains expecting peace and treks. But others go too: and they seem to be there despite the mountains. They eat and drink and ignore the simple fact of walking; they go everywhere in cars and ask for a city on the hills. They are there not for the mountains, but for the weather. Many green belts in tourist-rich places are weary with sunset points, odd gazebos and concretised decks. Yet this nature reserve feels different.
This is a place to get lost in. Gentle trails run like ant lines up the hill. The vegetation is thick and complex. The heat of June creeps up our necks, but we choose the highest trail to climb. The paths are lined with restored patches – oaks with ferns under them, rhododendrons with their spreading branches, pines with lineated trunks well-worn by woodpeckers. There is a scramble of shrubs up one slope, a rocky face on the other. You can bring along a nature guide. Or you can walk by yourself. The forest feels like cotton wool that touches you gently, moderating the mountain for you. On one slope, the sun cuts through your skin, but behind the rocks there is inky, deep shade. There are layers of oak leaf litter decorating the ground – their edges are serrated, and the brown feels like that of a well-worn sofa. As we walk, we feel an intense need to lie down in the ferns, to drink the peace through the pores of our skin. We have recently recovered from COVID, and are panting. The city seems to be following me like smog: I have a new job with its incipient challenges, someone said something rude on the highway, our lungs have cardiovascular marks, and we are not yet healthy enough.

Jabarkhet offers trails of varying difficulty, encouraging everyone to amble, and at their own pace. Gentle trails run like ant lines up the hill and the paths are lined with restored patches – oaks with ferns under them, rhododendrons with their spreading branches, pines with lineated trunks well-worn by woodpeckers. Photo Courtesy: Jabrakhet Nature Reserve.
But the sounds of the forest break through. There is a Brown-fronted Woodpecker  that I hear before I see it. A little ahead, there is a Himalayan Woodpecker, completely consumed in its task of excavating an insect from a pine tree. A Grey-winged Blackbird glimmers from its perch. Our guide shows us a Hill Partridge, as brown as spotted oak leaf litter. The trail is exciting – we have chosen it for its curves, it runs like a mountain stream would. By now, we are panting; we can’t climb anymore and we sit down. This is our post-COVID mountain. “I will die on this hill,” I say, only half-joking to my companion.
The guide lets us sit, and he is happy to wait for us. I think back on my favourite forests – I love the rocky wilderness of Pench forests, with its ghost trees growing out of sheets of rock; the jagged quality of Kaziranga’s grasslands; the verdant emerald moisture of Periyar. But you can’t walk in tiger reserves. It is your vehicle, not your legs, that sets the pace there. I have been to countless reserve and community forests, but have wondered about safety, about overstaying my welcome, and how long I can stay. Jabarkhet offers me something one gets only in the best-run walks – the chance to walk on my own, and the chance to walk at my pace. It offers me the luxury of not just the mountain but also that of time.
I can be a fleet-footed deer, a stationary, ponderous elephant, and a two-legged naturalist here. I can hopscotch like a frog and stand like a willow. We move again, and the guide tells us how the area was restored after forest fires, and a surfeit of garbage removal to the tune of 800 kg. Now, there is no garbage. I can see a meadow with gently waving wild daisies. And there is a rhododendron tree, the largest I have ever seen. It stands like a candelabra. It wears its age with kindness and beauty. In March, the blossoms are full of Black Bulbuls and Maroon Orioles. The forest has seeped into my bones and calmed me. My lungs wheeze, but I am alright. Unexpectedly, I find myself crying.
This is a beautiful and safe place. It is unmarked by the vulgarities of mass tourism, despite being next to a major tourist destination. It survives because of, and in spite of, Mussoorie. It can be accessed easily and quickly, and within the reserve, you can leave your hurry behind. This nature reserve was once overgrazed, lopped, and run over with weeds. Restoration work started in 2013. Now, the reserve has black bears, leopard cats, gorals, jungle cats, yellow-throated martens and barking deer. On camera traps, leopards, porcupines, wild pigs, sambar and Himalayan fox have been spotted. There is an abundance of birds. In the monsoons, mushrooms sprout in cool alcoves. Ground orchids blossom.

During the silence of the pandemic, Sejal Worah and Virendra Singh saw this rarest of rare sights in Jabarkhet: a young leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis sitting on a rock. Photo Courtesy: Jabrakhet Nature Reserve.
During the first wave of the lockdown, nature guide Virendra Singh was walking the slopes with Sejal Worah, the conservation expert who envisioned the eco-tourism and restoration project. They saw something on a slope. It was a baby leopard cat. Leopard cats are notoriously cryptic; the young ones even more so. “It was an amazing moment – a validation of all our work,” Singh says. That was exactly four years ago. In the years after the pandemic lifted, the reserve has seen a steady inflow of visitors. Singh is from a nearby village and joined Jabarkhet in 2013, and has been with them ever since. “I love the outdoors. Jabarkhet has given me the chance to turn that into my whole life.” The nature reserve provides employment to local people – as guides and as security guards.
Jabarkhet is owned by a nature-loving, Mumbai-based businessman, Vipul Jain. The area provides a template on how gentle eco-tourism can be scaled up. “My vision is to not only see the forests surrounding Jabarkhet Nature Reserve as part of a larger conservation area, but to see this model of forest protection by individuals, groups and communities replicated across the state,” says Sejal Worah.
Hours have passed. We have come down the slopes. Our fear of not being able to climb the COVID hill has left us. We haven’t conquered the mountain – we have just come closer to the forest and its rhythms. Perhaps a goral saw us. Perhaps a jungle cat turned around. The mountains gave us the gift of time, wrapped in moss and packed thickly with oak leaves. It’s a gift that the best kind of ecotourism brings – intimate, meaningful, full of effort but rich with reward.
Head of Policy and Communications, WWF, Neha Sinha is an award-winning conservation biologist and author of Wild and Wilful. You can contact Jabarkhet on Facebook, Instagram, or their websit



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