BIRD TOURISM TAKES WING

Ut­tarak­hand strikes a bal­ance between con­ser­va­tion and em­ploy­ment by in­sti­tu­tion­al­is­ing bird­watch­ing camps, says GHAZ­ALA SHA­HABUD­DIN, who at­tended one such camp as trainer

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Bird­watch­ing camps in Ut­tarak­hand train lo­cal peo­ple as na­ture guides, boost­ing tourism and liveli­hood

THE GOV­ERN­MENT ma­chin­ery had started whirring and the ex­cite­ment was in­fec­tious. Prepa­ra­tions were un­der way for yet an­other bird­watch­ing camp un­der the aegis of the Eco­tourism Wing of Ut­tarak­hand For­est Depart­ment. The camp was be­ing or­gan­ised at Ma­hesh Khan Re­serve For­est near Bhowali. Ear­lier in the week, un­ex­pected rains had washed the veg­e­ta­tion clean. Forests all around were lush and invit­ing, and the birdlife, abun­dant.

Reach­ing at the camp as a re­source per­son a day ear­lier, I ob­served young peo­ple—for­est guards, pro­fes­sional na­ture guides, tourism per­son­nel, stu­dents and pho­tog­ra­phers— gath­er­ing from re­mote places in the Hi­malayan state. They greeted friends, col­leagues and ac­quain­tances from pre­vi­ous camps and dis­cussed ex­cit­ing bird sight­ings and work op­por­tu­ni­ties.As the day wore on, more and more book­ings were re­quested on the phone.The num­ber bulged to 38, leav­ing all of us squeezed for space in dor­mi­to­ries and cot­tages in the camp­ing area.The camp was free for all par­tic­i­pants, mak­ing it ac­ces­si­ble to poor peo­ple.

The pro­gramme is the brain­child of for­est of­fi­cer Ra­jiv Bhar­tari. In 1994, bird­watch­ing camps were held in parts of Cor­bett Tiger Re­serve, when Bhar­tari, the erst­while deputy direc­tor of the re­serve, in­vited bird­watch­ers from Delhi, peo­ple from nearby vil­lages, pro­fes­sional guides and for­est guards for pop­u­lar­is­ing bird-based tourism. The suc­cess of th­ese camps led to the for­mal ini­ti­a­tion of the Ut­tarak­hand Bird­watch­ing Pro­gramme in April 2012.Since then, there has been one camp al­most ev­ery month in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Kedar­nath, Bin­sar, Sankri, Dodi­tal, Pan­got, Cor­bett and Dhanolti. The camp at Ma­hesh Khan was 21st in the se­ries.

The pri­mary pur­pose of th­ese camps is to train lo­cal peo­ple as na­ture guides who can then be as­so­ci­ated with tourist fa­cil­i­ties, re­sorts and home­s­tays. The larger aim is to demon­strate the pos­si­bil­ity of na­ture-based tourism, in­clud­ing bird­watch­ing and trekking, as one of the vi­able liveli­hood av­enues for the peo­ple of Ut­tarak­hand, a state of un­sur­passed nat­u­ral beauty and bio­di­ver­sity. In­creased num­bers of tourists bring in ad­di­tional liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple through vil­lage-based home­s­tays, taxi ser­vices and restau­rants in the hills. Be­sides, pro­mot­ing bird­watch­ing as a hobby among city-based tourists helps in­still eco­log­i­cal con­scious­ness among them.

Camp par­tic­i­pants are trained in the sci­ence of bird­watch­ing, ex­posed to skills such as iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of bird calls, pho­tog­ra­phy, na­ture-guid­ing and im­por­tantly, the ethics of na­ture-based tourism. Lec­tures, slideshows and free­wheel­ing dis­cus­sions on re­lated is­sues add to the en­ergy and ef­fec­tive­ness of th­ese camps.

Since 2012, th­ese camps have trained 440 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 86 pro­fes­sional guides, 192 for­est guards, 59 hote­liers and 37 stu­dents. Ad­di­tion­ally, in Fe­bru­ary 2014, the first ever Ut­tarak­hand Bird Fes­ti­val was or­gan­ised at Asan Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve near Dehradun, which was at­tended by 1,200 peo­ple. Large num­bers of school and col­lege stu­dents, tourism pro­fes­sion­als, guides, am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers and foresters at­tended the bird-walks, work­shops, ex­hi­bi­tions and cul­tural pro­grammes or­gan­ised dur­ing the unique event.It also turned out to be an im­por­tant net­work­ing op­por­tu­nity for

The pri­mary pur­pose of bird­watch­ing camps is to train lo­cal peo­ple as na­ture guides who can then be as­so­ci­ated with re­sorts and tourist fa­cil­i­ties

pro­fes­sional bird­ers, tourism pro­fes­sion­als and guides and ex­posed fresh re­cruits to the plea­sures of bird­watch­ing. This tes­ti­fies to the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of bird­watch­ing both as a hobby and a pro­fes­sion.

The suc­cess of the Bird Fes­ti­val has now en­cour­aged the Eco­tourism Wing to or­gan­ise the fes­ti­val ev­ery year in the dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions so that more and more bird­ing sites can be brought into the lime­light and lo­cal en­ter­prises can be en­cour­aged.

Ev­ery bird­watch­ing camp has its own unique am­bi­ence and bi­o­log­i­cal thrills. The one at Ma­hesh Khan was no dif­fer­ent. Lo­cated at about one-and-a-half hour’s drive from Kath­go­dam rail­way sta­tion, the re­serve for­est har­bours dense baanj oak ( Quer­cus leu­cotri­chophora) and pine ( Pi­nus­rox­burghii) forests that are typ­i­cal of al­ti­tudes between 1,700 m and 2,200 m.

Baanj oak for­est, an en­dan­gered and vul­ner­a­ble for­est, has been frag­mented and degra­dated due to in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment, land-use change, overex­trac­tion and un­sus­tain­able tourism. Yet it har­bours many rare and habi­tat-re­stricted bird species such as the white-browed shrike bab­bler and whitethroated laugh­ing thrush, the ma­roon ori­ole, blue-winged minla, black-faced war­bler, moun­tain bul­bul, ru­fous-bel­lied nil­tava, stri­ated laugh­ing thrush, tick­ell’s thrush and col­lared owlet. The high­light of the camp was spot­ting the brown wood owl, which is a cryptic species and is rarely seen.The campers sighted an­other rare bird—the golden bird­wing but­ter­fly. Th­ese species re­quire high-qual­ity oak for­est to sur­vive. Their sight­ings in­di­cate that the Ma­hesh Khan for­est of­fers good habi­tat to birds.

The campers wit­nessed an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non dur­ing bird­ing—mixed hunt­ing flocks, or groups of dif­fer­ent in­secteat­ing bird species, in­clud­ing long-tailed minivets, bar-tailed tree-creep­ers, coal tits, grey-hooded war­blers and ru­fous-bel­lied wood­pecker, flock­ing to­gether for bet­ter feed­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Most of the peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gramme were from re­mote vil­lages and work with ru­ral tourism en­ter­prises. The camp of­fered them ex­po­sure to the di­verse set of peo­ple who had come to the camp ei­ther as train­ers or speak­ers. There were Pratap

Singh, an or­nithol­o­gist and for­est of­fi­cer, spe­cial­is­ing in bird calls; Mo­hit Agar­wal, owner of Ut­tarak­hand’s first bird­ing lodge at Pan­got; Deepak Rawat, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Ku­maon Man­dal Vikas Nigam and Su­jit Ban­er­jee, chair of World Tourism and Travel Coun­cil. I used my ex­pe­ri­ence to en­cour­age ob­ser­va­tion of bird be­hav­iours, such as courtship, co­op­er­a­tive hunt­ing, nest­ing, feed­ing and ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity, rather than sim­ply cre­at­ing lists of birds. There were work­shop ses­sions de­voted to the prac­tice, ethics and best prac­tices of na­ture guid­ing.

Such gath­er­ings of­ten bring in serendipitous learn­ing and pos­si­bil­i­ties. Rawat of Ku­maon Man­dal Vikas Nigam, which has 48 re­sorts all over Ku­maon, an­nounced a new scheme to be­gin guided bird-walks at ev­ery resort. This is likely to bring in im­mense em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for well-trained lo­cal guides dur­ing the next few years.

Bhar­tari had re­alised early on that bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion in the hills can be suc­cess­ful only with the syn­er­gis­tic in­volve­ment of ru­ral peo­ple, for­est depart­ment and tourism en­ter­prises.He carved out a niche for eco­tourism over the years through cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate bud­get for na­ture-based tourism and a large con­stituency of lo­cal peo­ple who look for­ward to the train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded by the camps.

Now the pro­gramme faces a set of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion prob­lems. Says Bhar­tari, “The new chal­lenge in ex­pand­ing the camps is cre­at­ing a sus­tain­able source of fi­nanc­ing. At present, the ex­penses are met through small grants from the Eco­tourism Wing. Ad­di­tional fi­nanc­ing is also required to pro­vide binoc­u­lars and field guides to all lo­cal guides who have at­tained a cer­tain de­gree of pro­fi­ciency. With­out such ba­sic equip­ment, the skills would be lost some­where along the way. We also wish to en­cour­age more women to take up guid­ing as a pro­fes­sion.”

Other ad­min­is­tra­tive hur­dles are cre­at­ing a for­mal li­cens­ing sys­tem so that qual­i­fied guides in es­tab­lished re­sorts are given ac­cess to for­est re­serves and sanc­tu­ar­ies for tak­ing tourists on treks. There is also a need to re­in­force eth­i­cal, prac­ti­cal and sci­en­tific skills among the guides to help im­prove their qual­ity.

Ex­pan­sion of ru­ral tourism has also brought its own set of prob­lems, which in­cludes solid waste man­age­ment, en­ergy wastage and wa­ter con­ser­va­tion. The prob­lems will ag­gra­vate with more tourists from cities vis­it­ing re­mote ar­eas.The Eco­tourism Wing has just be­gun tack­ling th­ese is­sues and is de­vel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy on this with the help of en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious tourism en­ter­prises.

In the quest for ex­pand­ing bird-based tourism, the Eco­tourism Wing has had the un­stint­ing sup­port of Ut­tarak­hand-based ngos, gov­ern­ment and tourism en­ter­prises, in­clud­ing Titli Trust, wwf, Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia, Ut­tarak­hand Coun­cil for Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, Jun­gle Lore Bird Lodge, Na­ture Sci­ence Ini­tia­tive.

Sev­eral in­di­vid­ual bird­watch­ers from cities also will­ingly spare time for train­ing, event or­gan­i­sa­tion and pub­li­ca­tion of ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als for the camps. The Ut­tarak­hand For­est Depart­ment has the pol­icy of en­cour­ag­ing wildlife re­searchers who can study birds and other or­gan­isms and cre­ate a body of knowl­edge on the ecosys­tems lo­cated all along the al­ti­tu­di­nal gra­di­ent from sub­trop­i­cal forests to the alpine ecosys­tems. Such knowl­edge can fur­ther feed into tourism and ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties and pro­vide ma­te­rial for books and pam­phlets to pop­u­larise na­ture.

Be­ing the first state in In­dia to in­sti­tu­tion­alise bird-based tourism, Ut­tarak­hand truly has some­thing to be proud about.

PHOTOGRAPHSS: GHAZ­ALA SHA­HABUD­DIN

(Clock-wise from left) Par­tic­i­pants of bird­watch­ing camp in Ma­hesh Khan re­serve for­est on a train­ing trip; Grey-winged black bird;

White-throated thrush

(Top) For­est

guards at Ma­hesh Khan bird­watch­ing camp; (right) For­est of­fi­cer Ra­jiv Bhar­tari

ad­dresses par­tic­i­pants at the camp

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