15 years ago when I started working in one of India’s most stunning forests, the damp smell of the leaves that dazzled the forest floor overlooking a magnificent saal canopy and the musical sounds of crystal clear water cascading down the white rocks shining like jewels, as the first rays of morning rays kissed the Ramganga, were some of the first soul touching moments of Corbett which continued to draw me back to this magical landscape in various professional capacities.
The blue waters of this spectacular river and the presence of glittering coat of a shy and elusive Corbett tiger trespassing the divine landscape always made me skip a few heartbeats. Years passed by and then emerged a tigress from this river as a goddess and with the attitude of a bold mermaid who loved the rich blues of the Ramganga. She became a showstopper and for the first time Corbett was known because of a tiger called Paro. Having followed the stories of various tiger families across tiger habitats of India I always waited for an opportunity to observe a tiger family that ruled the rivers of Corbett. I anxiously waited for her future generations as I was curious to see a river denizen raising her young in the dramatic yet challenging terrain.
Over the past many years I followed various tiger families in various tiger habitats of India. As Paro walked out with her tiny borns dangling in her mouth last summer, I was geared to document a special story I had been waiting to work on for over a decade. A perfect character and the perfect family in some grand backdrops. The monsoons swept away half of her motherly aspirations and she was left with one male cub – the chosen one.
A little prince did not hesitate to take the first bold steps in a river rubbing shoulders with her mother. His antics made him a heartthrob as he braved the winters, climbed tree stumps and exhaled breaths of gold in the misty golden mornings of the Ramganga. He was always a little slow in catching up with her mother. But eventually he did make it every time.
However the night of May 27th was tough for our entire team as we knew the young prince had strayed a little too far and he was in danger. It was a night when a grieving mother battled an intruder and her cries echoed in the vast grasslands she owns. It was a night where we waited every minute for the sun to throw the slightest of light on a small water puddle which was the last refuge for a Prince who dreamt of ruling the river.
RIP “The Little Prince of Par” …
Your tales will be embedded in the soul of the rivers which have been your playground in the past one year. I pray for your the future generations of stripes who will continue to rule the rivers like you aspired to in the years to come.
I have been on the road since the first week of March. From a fortnight in high altitude terrains of Himalayas in search of Snow Leopards to shuttling between Corbett & Ranthambore guiding guests from South Africa, United States & United Kingdom. Here is a quick round up for March 2018.
The Snow Leopard Expedition was a memorable experience with 6 sightings of 8 individual cats. The tender mother and cub moments enthralled our guests and the bold male gave some excellent photographic opportunities.
Paro’s young cub in Corbett has been looking in great shape and being the lone cub he is growing up fast. His antics around the river and river beds of Dhikala would be etched in sighting records of Corbett for years to come. Ranthambore on the other hand has been going steady and the major turn of events has been the sudden surge in sightings of Krishna (T19) and cubs post March 2018. Machali Junior or Arrowhead littered in the last week of February but the cubs have not been seen post the first report and the survival of the young cubs is questionable. The other consistent sightings have been Laila (T41) and her Blue Eye male cub. Noor (T39) and her female litter of 3 cubs are now showing signs of separation. Ladli (T8) and the cubs have been regularly seen along with the separated male cubs of T60.
Stay tuned to this space for some more exciting summer reports from Wild India in the coming months.
February has been all about hopping between various tiger habitats of India. The month started with Ranthambore where my guests spent some productive sessions with Noor (T39) and cubs and the T60 separated male cubs. Glimpses of Machali Junior (T84) raised hopes of her pregnancy. The lakes have been drying up gradually the effects of a scanty monsoon is now clearly visible.
We then moved on to the action area of Dhikala in Corbett National Park where the winter mist continued to fascinate our guests. The elephants have dwindled as compared to January but still there were sizeable numbers considering we are still in the fading part of winters of India.
Post the sad demise of my friend and elder brother Rajwardhan Sharma, I had to gather a lot of courage to go back to Bandhavgarh. I avoided it for the past few months but work commitments have got me here again.
I have just arrived amidst memories of Raj saheb and as I am gearing up for the week out here in Bandhavgarh, his pleasant memories and the hours of time we have spent together are reinstating my belief that Bandhavgarh will never be the same without him.
I just wrapped up the second Corbett schedule for January 2018. This time it was a photo safari with a young talented bunch of shutterbugs in Dhikala. The highlight for this schedule was yet again elephants in the cloud of mist floating over the grasslands. It is very critical to value the importance of simple moments in the wild and focus your energies on them. I am glad that my guests realised the importance of photographing elephants in winters and some outstanding perspective were created every morning.
And yes we did bump into a few tigers in our quest for light and mist…
Here are few more images depicting the winter moods of Corbett
Just wrapped up the first leg of field visit to Corbett at the start of 2018. I was scouting locations for a filming team and there wasn’t enough time to shoot any stills but the dappled light emerging from a mystic saal forest along with the presence of elephants in the grasslands and a couple of tigers walking on the dazzling riverbeds made the visit special. The pristine locations around the park also kept us busy with ghoorals, Great Indian Hornbills and otters were seen over the period.
Heading back for the first Nature Wanderers photography expedition tomorrow. Stay tuned for more field updates from the magical winter woods of India.
Till then here are some images from Kumaon at the start of the new year.
Thank you for the wonderful response to my book – A Decade with Tigers. I have been taking a note of each and every feedback you all have shared – both positive and negative. I hope you have enjoyed reading the stories of India’s top tiger brand ambassadors and in case you haven’t picked up a copy yet, log in to your Amazon or Flipkart accounts to get your copy today.
Here is what the readers and the media had to say about the book:
“From tiger mothers and male tigers to denizens of the tiger kingdom, the book is surely a treat for tiger lovers” – Deccan Chronicle
“The stunning pictures of Indian wildlife in this book are testament to the magnificence of our natural world” – Valmik Thapar
“Books like these with strong visuals unfold the wild mysteries of species of India and makes you connect with nature” – Dhritiman Mukherjee
In the past 14 years I have documented the lives of some of the most iconic tigers of India. I am pleased to announce the launch of my book – A Decade with Tigers – which is a compilation of images and stories depicting love, romance, motherhood, rivalry and revenge in the world of tigers in the past decade. Here is a curtain raiser to the book.
Stay tuned for launch updates…
It is World Elephant Day today and I take this opportunity to showcase to beauty of these magnificent creatures of Mother Nature. They are symbolic from various aspects – be it culture, mythology, religion or just their sheer presence in our forests. The Asiatic Elephants are one of the many shining jewels of wild India.
Nothing could have been a better start to a new year. Reliving some magical mornings of Corbett… the music of a Himalayan river with sparkling waters cascading down the white stones which slowly get lit as the sun peeps from the horizon and fumes of mist mingles with the first rays of the sun to create a seraphic landscape which has been forever embedded in my memory for more than a decade.
Over the years, while photographing this splendour a variety of subjects came and added a flavour to the glowing ambers of the Ramganga on a daily basis. Days normally start with redstarts, storks, greenshank and slowly graduates to a pied kingfisher and finally on one of the days a crested kingfisher takes over the misty throne of the Ramganga. However that particular morning of January 2017 was steaming with a thick layer of mist which made the light softer than usual. As I was waiting for my routine kingfishers, a group of smooth coated otters distracted me on the opposite direction as I observed their morning chores while they merrily swam braving strong river tides in search of a meal. For quite some time, I avoided the distraction but the otter antics were hard to resist and for a change I prioritised subjects over light and changed the direction of the camera. As soon as I looked through the viewfinder of my camera, behind my back, a ghostly figure royally stood on the smoking orange stones of the river. The subject was 200 times the size of the expected kingfisher and as soon as I looked back, we both stared at each other in shock.
At the blink of an eye the ruler of the Ramganga – a huge male tiger – traced back and ran back towards the bushes from where it was making up its mind to cross the glowing river. Some photographic opportunities remain edged to your memory even when you miss them. The frame was blank but the memory of the soul of the river in that dramatic set-up will remain forever.
For the records, here are few images from the year-opening photo tour to Corbett National Park.
The 2016 edition of Tiger Marathon – the annual back to back tiger photography tours by Nature Wanderers – ended this week with some exemplary sightings in Ranthambhore and Corbett National Park. While the lakes were productive again in Ranthambhore, we also got the opportunity to photograph the newly crowned mother T60 and her 3 cubs. Sessions with Noor (T39) and T57 were equally intense and productive.
Corbett on the other hand along with expected elephant action was ruled by Paarwali sightings as the river mermaid of Ramganga gave multiple opportunities for photography in typical Corbett habitats. Here are a few images created in the past fortnight.
It is the end of season and as I look back at the hectic 9 months, some of those glorious wildlife moments keep flashing in my head. With more than 150 game drives in Ranthambhore, the focus of the season was on Krishna and cubs. My brief fortnight-long stints in Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett and Sunderbans were rewarding as well. Escorting some of the best photographers in business, it was a great knowledge sharing experience on the field. Though in most of the game drives I wasn’t shooting much since I was escorting and mentoring photographers, I did squeeze in time for some personal drives in Ranthambhore and those were the times my camera was in action the most.
Presenting a compilation of my top 14 wildlife moments for 2014-2015.
1. Krishna & Cubs – October 2013
The season started with Ranthambhore and the first glimpse of Krishna and her cubs in the band of golden morning light at Rajbagh remains edged to my memory till date. The experience lasted for not more than 10 mins but our gang of photographers created some dream images that by far are the best images of T19 and cubs from that time from October 2013.
2. The King & The Fisher – Nov 2014
Amidst the hysteria around T39 (Noor) and her cubs one fine morning in November 2014, a tiny kingfisher caught my attention. The background was a typical Ranthambhore habitat and resulted in this image. One of my favorites from the season. Worked on similar concepts whenever the opportunity was right. Infact over the next many months after shooting this, I did a lot of birding around tigers – from Kingfishers, the stone curlews, drongos, peacocks, robins. The first creation is normally the best creation and rest are more of duplications in order to better this.
3. In His Kingdom – Kanha – Dec 2014
Kanha in winters has always been special for photography. Not for tigers but because of the mist and the meadows. During one such game drive in Kanha, we bumped into the majestic Munna. My experiments with Tilt Shift lenses on tigers have helped me in creating some unique wide angle perspectives. The saal forest backdrop offered the perfect opportunity to pull out the glass from the bag.
4. A morning at Rajbagh – Jan 2015
There was something about that morning at Rajbagh. The soft morning light filtering through the mist was just enough for shooting this wonderful show put up by Krishna and her cubs at the edges of the lakes. Our gang of photographers were stunned in silence after this wonderful action packed sequence – probably the best action by this terrific family throughout the season. The soft light, the grand backdrops, the orange winter coats of the cubs… am sure the lensmen present that morning will vouch for this being probably the best tiger action of their lifetime.
5. The Winter Couple – Jan 2015 – Bharatpur
End of Jan, we took a small break from Ranthambhore and shot in Bharatpur for a few days. Despite of the low activity of birds in Bharatpur, I decided to focus on a subject I love to work with – the Sarus Cranes. Morning to evening sessions with Sarus led us to this beautiful pair of cranes that walked out in unison in the early morning mist of Keoladeo with the sun just popping out from behind deep in the horizon. As I looked through the view finder to shoot this image, I had goosebumps all over seeing this dramatic setting of the Keoladeo marshes.
6. Thunderbold Krishna – Feb 2015
The master hunter Krishna silently disappeared in the Rajbagh grasses one evening in Ranthambhore. Unaware of what is going to happen, my vehicle reached the spot and as I changed my equipments to focus on a group of cheetal grazing in a small patch of open grass, Krishna stormed out like lightning in the small patch of light dispersing the group in all directions.
7. Tiger Off-Springs – Ranthambhore – March 2015
It was a 30 mins sighting that morning at Rajbagh and not more than 5 mins of hardcore tiger action. Krishna cubs played like maniacs in that backlit set up. A storm of lenses surrounded them as the lake water splashed all around with the mother joining the play sequence.
8. Bears and Bears – April 2015
I remember this morning as one of my best game drives in the park. We were running after the mother T39 (Noor) while her cubs were already been seen by a flurry of vehicles in zone 1. In our pursuit we bumped into a different specie of a mother who walked on a forest floor bed full of palas (flame of the forest) flowers. Post this all the vehicles dispersed from the cubs location and we spent a nice peaceful exclusive time with T39 and her cubs.
9. His First Catch – Ranthambhore – April 2015
A moment which will be engrained in my memory till my last breath. The inexperience male cub of Krishna (T19) attempted to bring down a cheetal. He struggled for more than 40 mins to kill the cheetal. A power-packed sequence but it was painful to see this through the view finder. Read the entire photo story on this blog – https://shivangmehtaphotography.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/the-first-catch/
10. Stripes – The Extreme Portrait – May 2015
Over the past few years, I have developed this taste of shooting extreme closeups of tigers. Scaling up the focal length to around 1000mm+, composition needs to be really precise. This summer, inspired by some frames and compositions from Tiger Dynasty (by Nalla Muthu) I wanted to go tighter than usual. I had a discussion with Nalla on his certain ultra tight compositions. God was kind to gift me with a calm and composed T24 sighting soon after those talks with Nalla where I made effective use of a 1000mm focal to create a series of super tiger compositions.
11. The Ramganga Queen – May 2015
I normally don’t run after tigers in Corbett. However May 2015 was an exception. The Par tigress was obliging photographers with their dream Corbett images and I forced myself to join this race. A few misses and finally we caught her one morning in Dhikala.
12. The Cave Dwellers – Bandhavgarh – May 2015
The Patiha family has been controlling a major chunk of tiger sightings in Bandhavgarh throughout the season. We spent 1 morning with the 3 cubs in this cave set up which is one of the most unique habitat image series of tigers I have shot till date. The reddish rocks, the contours in the rocks, the gradients and patterns and the sparkling stripes made an interesting combo and the 10 odd images around this cave have been amongst the top backdrops for tiger photography for me.
13. Krishna Clan – Ranthambhore – May 2015
Over the months, it has been an experience the changing behavior of tiger cubs. The playful Krishna cubs were now displaying signs of independence by making their own odd kills and small fights showcasing dominance. But the attachment with the mother was seen time and again and during this morning in May 2015, 14 month old tiger cubs were caught suckling.
14. Star walked the ramp – June 30, 2015
The lakes of Ranthambhore can surprise you anytime of the day. Rains had an impact of the sightings of the park in the last few days of the park closure. It was the morning of June 30th and everyone was hoping for 1 final glimpse before the park closes for monsoons. We decided to take a final lap of the lakes before leaving and caught Star (T28) walking in the pristine backdrop of the fort and on a carpet of green. It was long and silent walk with no vehicles around. A befitting end to a season!
It’s the end of June and most parks of India are on the verge of closure for monsoons. I started this month with elephants as the focus of my photography in Corbett National Park and then headed off to escort a gang of 3 photographers who were keen to shoot Vijaya (Kankati – the one eyed warrior queen of Bandhavgarh and one of my favorite tigers across forests of India) and her newly born litter of 3 cubs. While the assignment was challenging since the cubs were too small (two and half months old), the patience and perseverance displayed by our team was exemplary and helped us to move closer to our goal day by day.
Am pleased to share some highlights from June before I head off to the high altitude terrains of Ladakh in July with another gang of young enthusiastic photographers.
Published as the featured image of the month in Conservation India
The Sunderkhal village falls in the crucial Kosi river corridor linking Corbett Tiger Reserve to the Ramnagar Forest Division. This landscape constitutes prime tiger and elephant habitat. A population estimation exercise done jointly by the state forest department and WWF-India revealed no less than 13 individual tigers — including breeding tigresses. The All India Tiger Estimate 2010 indicated a density of 14 tigers / 100 sq km in Ramanagar forest division.
Here is a stray tusker being driven away by villagers using a fire fence in the periphery of the village.
Due to the severe fragmentation and human pressures, this corridor experiences severe human-wildlife conflict; in 2010-11, about six people were killed by a tiger, and a ‘man-eater’ was shot dead and then paraded by a jubilant crowd in Sunderkhal, an illegal encroachment established in the 1970s by the then Chief Minister ND Tewari on the Kosi river corridor. Sunderkhal village, along with a number of tourist resorts block the vital tiger and elephant corridor that leads to the Kosi river and the Ramnagar forests beyond — an issue that the state has failed to address. Not only do the tourist resorts physically block the corridor, they engage in many illegal activities including changing the river course, baiting tigers, playing loud music, night safaris etc.
The period from December to January is special for photography in Corbett National Park. The early morning mist mingles with the morning light to give some dramatic images which probably no other forest of India can offer. Even the most common subjects can help creating some frames and perspectives that will make your day satisfactory. I have always felt that Corbett as a forest pushes your photographic brain to thing beyond tigers. Here is a collection of some images which were created over the last couple of months.
Visit www.facebook.com/ShivangPhotography for more images from Corbett
Deep inside the heavily wooded forest of Corbett National Park rests a Machaan that gives shelter to hundreds of photographers, naturalists and tourists visiting Corbett every year. Approximately 30 feet in height, this old machaan gives a panoramic view of the picturesque Dhikala grasslands and the Ramganga river that supports a multitude of life forms in Corbett National Park. “The forest is always buzzing with activity,” the statement holds true once you spend a quite afternoon on this structure in the heart of wilderness.
It was the month of June when Kahini and I set off from the Gairal forest rest house in Corbett early in the morning in search of the dominant male tiger in the Khinnauli belt. We had been tracking the striped beauty for the last 2 days and our chances were becoming brighter as we saw fresh tracks early that morning along with frantic alarm calls of spotted deer. However luck was not in our favor again as after waiting for over 2 hours near the river side (where we were expecting the arrival of the tiger) the beast still eluded me and my camera.
As we continued our journey by heading towards the Dhikala grasslands the passing vehicles informed us about tiger movements on the Sambhar Road and we rushed towards our beloved Sambhar Road watchtower which gives the perfect view of the area in which the tiger was prowling. We boarded the machchan at 8:30 am and strained our ears to listen to the faintest of sounds of the alarm calls that would announce the arrival of the king. In the next couple of hours the forest went silent and the cool breeze put me to sleep. A watchtower can be a wonderful place for catching some sleep as the calmness and tranquility of the forest is very relaxing indeed.
The silence was broken by a black jungle crow that woke us up with his hoarse calls and to our surprise we sighted a beautiful collared falconet right in front of us. The atmosphere was filled with excitement yet again as a pair of pallas fishing eagle took off from inside the forest and stormed past the watchtower making a screeching sound giving us a great shot of the flight of the eagle. Following this Kahini spotted a pair of pied kingfishers hovering over the river in search of their lunch. Their close cousins – the white throated kingfishers – followed them and looked stunning with their colorful wings wide open.
Amidst the birding action, a small herd of spotted deer inched closure to the river and boosted our chances of tracking the tiger. The weather was perfect for a tiger to approach a water body as it was getting hotter and humid as the clock ticked. And then the spotted deers in front of us made a low alarm call. We could see that all the deers were pointing in one direction and stamping their feet in the water in nervousness.
The excitement was at its peak as this is what tiger tracking is all about. This is why the tiger sends shivers down the spines of the jungle folk when it moves fearlessly in forests of India. It was only a matter of time now and we were anxiously waiting as everything was falling into place… 10 minutes went by and by now the alarm calls became louder. Our eyes were glued to a patch of lantana from where we were expecting the tiger to come. My sleep had vanished and I was ready to shoot with my fingers half pressed on my camera shutter. It was 4 pm and with a slight disturbance in the lantana, out walked the tiger. Those magical stripes were shining brightly in the sun and the tiger walked past the deer herd majestically to choose his preferred spot in the river.
It was a big male and he rested royally in the middle of the sparkling Ramganga for the next 20 minutes!
Nature gives signals… there are many times we ignore it but on that warm day of June it was hard to overlook them. As I was sipping a cup of tea in my camp in Corbett Tiger Reserve, a pair of white-backed vultures was displaying an extraordinary aerial combat. Moments later, a brown headed barbet perched itself on a tree next to me and was tossing small seeds and flower buds in the air as the food was landing straight in its mouth. As I was observing this pleasing moment, a crested serpent eagle flew and rested itself on a branch right over my head. I changed position to save my tea and saw that the magnificent raptor was feeding on a rat as the filtered sunrays were lighting up its fiery eyes.
“Seems to be a lucky day,” I thought and headed off for a short drive in the buffer zone of Corbett Tiger Reserve. For years, I had dreamt of a close encounter with one of the most ferocious and supreme rulers of the forest. Not a tiger, not an elephant but a reptile that rules the waters of Corbett. A reptile that on any given day can even give a tiger a run for its money when it comes to power. These seemingly lazy monsters can surprise you with their agility and their powerful jaws can crush the heaviest of preys like Sambhars in split seconds.
The mugger crocodiles and gharials have been ruling the sparkling waters of the Ramganga and can be frequently seen resting in the cosy banks of the river from various vantage points inside the national park. However, on multiple occasions, I tried my luck with them by visiting stretches of the Ramganga outside the national park. My attempts were to approach them carefully so as to get a close shot of these aquatic beauties. Most of these attempts failed as crocs are extremely sensitive to sound and they tend to disappear in the river with the slightest of disturbance.
As I was heading towards Marchula crossing the dense saal cover, I was wondering if the luck I was enjoying since morning would favour me. Forest superstitions plague your mind at times. “If I sight a cheetal somewhere in the next 2 minutes, this is certainly my day,” I told myself. I had hardly made this statement when a slight movement on the road bend caught my attention. A full grown cheetal stag walked out on the road looked straight at my vehicle and sprinted towards the other side. I was thrilled and marvelled at the signals that nature was giving me.
On reaching Marchula, I approached the river with anxiety and apprehensions. As I was descending from the hill, I saw something that seemed to be a log of wood. I inspected the area closely using my binoculars and the mighty jaws were wide open. A giant mugger croc was lying on the bank of the river… and luckily the bank was the same area I was approaching. I noticed that the beast was almost 20 meters away from the river.
Today was the chance for be face to face the monster of Ramganga – was the though as the distance was reducing while I was approaching the croc with steady and soft steps ensuring that I do not make a single sound. The slightest movement from his side and I would stop and stay still till I felt that the animal was comfortable with my presence.
I was now 20 meters away from the beautiful crocodile which was nearly of the same size as the distance I was maintaining. Sweat was dripping down my face and I could feel a cold shiver down my spine as those intoxicating green eyes were checking my every move. I don’t know whether it was because of fear or excitement… but I guess it was a mixture of feelings.
The handsome croc with its fiery eyes had now started give me the most nerve chilling experience in the wild as it started advancing towards me. I guess nature was now signalling that the time had come for the retreat and I slowly started backing off leaving behind the croc in that pristine valley that draws me back every time in search of the river prince!
Co-authored with Aditya Singh (Published in Sanctuary Asia Feb 2011 issue)
A warm summer evening. A drive through the picturesque Kumaon forest. The Gypsy you are in comes to a sudden halt. There is excitement in the air as a chital herd belts out frantic alarm calls. Not too long after, a majestic tiger walks toward the river. A few metres across, a herd of elephants slowly approach the river for their evening drink. As your eyes shuttle between these two magnificent species, two aerial acrobats vie for attention. A pair of Pied Kingfishers hovers right above the middle of the river in search of an evening snack. This is the true magic of Corbett National Park… the land of roar, trumpet and song!
Over the ages, Corbett has fascinated thousands of wildlife and nature lovers across the globe. Home to some of the most stunning landscapes and rich wildlife, the Dhikala zone of Corbett is one of India’s prime natural wonders. With mixed vegetation that comprises dense sal cover and vast stretches of open grasslands, Dhikala offers a viable habitat for the tiger and the Asiatic elephant. Abundant water resources in the form of glacial rivers and thick forest cover houses hundreds of resident and migratory birds.
As India’s first tiger reserve, Corbett is also an example of how tourism and conservation can be at loggerheads. Close proximity to major cities such as Delhi and wayward tourism have had an impact on the park’s ecology. Over 70 odd private properties have cropped up in and around the Corbett Tiger Reserve. With wildlife and adventure tourism being a flourishing and profitable business, surrounding towns like Ramnagar depend on this as a major source of income. For the locals, even slight changes in forest laws can therefore hamper their economy, making survival tough in the seasonal business of tourism.
WHEN TOURISM HURTS
Over the years the phalanx of resorts on the eastern boundary of Corbett has cut off the corridors used by wild animals to access the Kosi river and the forests of the Ramnagar Division. Most of the resorts have a high ecological footprint, from producing enormous waste to catering to loud, rash tourists. The park’s management has often been under political pressure generated by the tourism lobby to bend rules. Increasing road traffic on the highway from Ramnagar to Mohan has also resulted in roadkills. Dhikala, in particular, has borne the brunt of runaway tourism.
Following condemnation from the wildlife community and reports by forest officials on how they are unable to handle the tourist pressure in Dhikala, the MoEF proposed the closure of the Dhikala zone in Corbett National Park for tourism. However, considering the economic and even conservation implications of this decision, is closing a zone the only solution to the problem? Shouldn’t a more viable long-term solution be considered?
Our Protected Areas were created to safeguard our last remaining vaults of biodiversity. It is unfortunate that market dictates do not permit protection for protection’s sake. But rather than creating a complete washout, we could consider a broader triple bottom line – market, environment and society. The reality is that tourism has more often than not served as the only ally of conservation, whether we like it or not. This is not to say that its flaws should be ignored. But the positive aspect of tourism is that it can be made into a winning formula, if we are truly committed to using it for the advantage of wildlife.
HOW TOURISM CAN HELP
With vehicles roaming inside the park boundaries on a regular basis, the forest is under constant surveillance as tourists indirectly patrol the park regularly. This is important as it keeps a check on any illegal activities inside a forest. In addition, tourists also act as information banks for the Forest Department as they are the eyes and ears of the forest. Information such as predator movement inside the park, locations of last sighting of mammals, reptiles and birds are handy records for keeping track of the forest health. This is why there have even been proposals to open up core areas of the park that are barred for tourists as of now and it would be worthwhile to have a larger debate on whether this can indeed reduce impact on tourist zones like Dhikala and also ensure that the core zones come under the tourist surveillance radar.
Tourism in a controlled and regulated manner can serve to bring much needed economic support if funds are ploughed back to our Protected Areas. Dhikala – as a matter of fact – is one of the few forest zones in India where due to its magnitude and size, night stay is permitted and mandatory for tourists. Unrestricted day trips to Dhikala have been curtailed with only a few canters permitted to better control the tourists. Perhaps a middle ground can be found whereby a restricted number of tourists are permitted for day and evening drives as is prevalent in other parks in the country.
CONSERVATION AND TOURISM
Tourism is the only ‘industry’ that pays for biodiverse, standing forests. Tourists are also a very effective de facto anti-poaching unit in many Protected Areas in India, possibly the most effective given the poor track record of patrolling. It is little wonder then that tourism zones seem to harbour the highest tiger densities. Dr. Raghu Chundawat, tiger scientist, has stated that the Tala zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh held a greater density of wild tigers (by far the highest in the world) than he had ever believed possible in such a small area. Of course, the Tala range also happens to support one of the highest tourist densities of all our tiger reserves.
Tourism, to a large extent, was responsible for the revitalisation of African wildlife. In a developing country like South Africa, wilderness tourism generates US$12 per acre per annum, while agricultural land yields just US$3 per acre. Furthermore its national parks are virtually financed by tourism revenues. Mountain gorillas ‘earn’ $200,000 per annum in permit fees alone for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and the indirect revenue is probably 30 times greater. Living Kenyan elephants will help bring in $1,000,000 in tourism revenue in their lifetimes, while a local poacher will earn less than $300 for the value of elephant ivory.
Let’s move to tigers. What is a tiger worth? The tourism zone of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, which has around 20 tigers, contributes over one billion rupees – directly and indirectly – to the Indian economy, every year. However, what must be considered is how much of this money helps to protect the species and how much reaches locals living around the reserve. The unfortunate truth is that over 40 per cent of this amount never reaches anyone in Ranthambhore and barely three per cent actually goes to the park. This must change… the money must be channelled in an honest and transparent manner to benefit wildlife and locals and it is both the tourism industry as well as the government’s responsibility to make sure that this happens.
To make wildlife tourism an effective conservation tool in India we – conservationists, the government and tourism professionals – must change our own archaic thought processes regarding both tourism and conservation. There are no magical solutions but there are a few things that we can do.
Visitors are able and willing to pay much more. The entrance fee in some parks is even lower than the price of bottled water in a mid-range hotel. And there is nothing wrong with charging special-interest tourists including photographers and birdwatchers, more for the privilege of longer, carefully supervised excursions and permissions to use hides or guard outposts. We should explore the idea of developing a tourism buffer within the forest buffer area. In most parks, for instance, agricultural fields begin right where the forest ends, leading to human-wildlife conflict. If hotels in wildlife areas were only permitted to set up facilities in harmony with the land on just two per cent of their land holdings, they could be persuaded to manage the rest of their land holding with the same strict rules that are implemented within the national park. If this were done, within a few short years, we would have a high biodiversity tourism buffer on the periphery of most parks. This would not only add to the forest area but reduce the tourist pressures at today’s over-crowded entry points. And, of course, ‘tourist cash’ would automatically reach locals.
Secondly, while the core zone of each Protected Area should definitely not be turned into a free-for-all, there must be a debate on how tourism can help to protect the core areas. Field biologists and forest officers need to work together to come up with a plan that suggests how ‘controlled’ tourism in core areas in some parks can be turned into a monitoring exercise for a few days each month. Most wildlife offences including poaching, cattle grazing and woodcutting take place in the core zone where offenders have free rein. In Ranthambhore, the poaching incidents that took place between 2003 and 2005 only came to light because poachers started targeting tigers in the tourism zone, after they had wiped out tigers from the inaccessible core. If tourists are asked to actually monitor the core area for perhaps a few days each month but asked to pay for the experience, the revenue generated could pay for 24×7 patrolling, 365 days a year. Core areas were created to allow wildlife the solitude they deserve but given the magnitude of threat from poaching and illegal grazing, we must take a fresh look at what can ensure them greater safety.
THE FUTURE OF CORBETT
For a forest like Corbett, some tourism rules are already in place and have been effective in several zones of the park. Caps on tourist vehicles entering the park, designated hours for morning and evening safaris inside the park, pre-conditions for tourists who are willing to go for a whole day drive inside the park – Corbett has seen it all over the years.
The Corbett Tiger Reserve has always been known for its best practices and highly efficient forest management that have set bench marks for other national parks in the country. It has also witnessed a dramatic rise in tiger numbers in the last census. A detailed analysis of what can curtail the ills of tourism there and ensure better practices that do not result in dismal conservation is the need of the hour.