Expert List: Where To Plan Your Next Wildlife Holiday—Responsibly

A small (snake-filled) sanctuary in Goa, rich wetlands in Odisha and Himachal, and hornbills in an absurdly green rainforest of Tamil Nadu—four experts list their favourite haunts in India.  
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Wildlife excursions in India offer unending possibilities, whether you dive in the Andamans (top left) to observe fish and coral reefs, or spot lion-tailed macaques (right) and great-pied hornbill (bottom left) in the evergreen regions of Pollachi. Photos by: Sumer Verma (Diver), Keerthana Balaji and Rohit Kalingarayar (lion-tailed macaque), Keerthana Balaji (hornbills)

Smitten by Snakes

Rahul Alvares

Herpetologist and Wildlife Guide, Goa

Visiting Goa solely for its beaches is like putting down a book after reading the blurb. The state might be tiny, but its coast and ghats thrum with herps and birds that are as dramatic as they are diverse. Ask Rahul Alvares, who grew up on a farm in Hivrem, Goa, and now leads birding and herpetology groups across the state.

“I was fascinated by snakes even before I learnt to crawl,” smiles Rahul. On a year-long break after passing out of school, he travelled to Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu and picked up the art of snake wrangling from the members of the indigenous Irula tribe through sign language because they didn’t share the same tongue. He suggests three biodiversity hotspots in Goa and how to tread them responsibly:

Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary

A pleasant day trip away from Goa’s Palolem beach, lies Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. It is located so far south that only the truly curious end up seeking it. The 86-square-kilometre woodland is peppered with hiking trails, trees that tower up to 100 feet and crisp air that echoes with calls of colourful critters. While the sanctuary is home to mouse deer, four-horned antelope, Malabar trogon and draco lizard, it also a magnet for herping enthusiasts who come to peer at the hump-nosed pit viper, Giri’s bronzeback, flying snake and king cobra.

Pro Tip: You don’t need a guide in these parts—let some basic knowledge of herpetology and a keen eye lead the way. The only advice Rahul offers is to pack enough camera batteries

Best Time to Visit: June to August is peak herping season.

Socorro Plateau In North

Goa is a vibrant herping ground. Visitors can catch glimpses of the brown vine snake (top left) and the flying snake (bottom right) at the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. Dracos (top right) are sighted in Agumbe while the Indian chameleon (bottom left) are common in the Western Ghats. Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee (chameleon & draco), Rahul Alvares (snakes)

Goa’s Socorro plateau, housing colonies end and forests as dense as secrets begin—just the places to spot the golden-mantled leafbird, plum-headed parakeet, munias, and orioles. Along the Paithona stream and Pilerne Lake, keep an eye out for pied kingfisher, woolly-necked stork, bronze-winged jacana, and purple heron. Stunning panorama meets the eye while on a boat ride along the Zuari river, underneath the recently opened 4,000-foot-long Zuari Bridge; sunsets here are the perfect backdrop to spot the white-collared kingfisher. At the approximately eight-square-kilometre Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary in northeast Goa, you’re likely to see the shy Malabar grey hornbill, ruby throated bulbul, white rumped shama and fairy blue bird.

Pro Tip: Rahul dissuades people from imitating bird calls.

Best Time to Visit: November to May is the ideal time to visit the plateau, while November-February is favourable if you’re looking for migratory birds. Forest birds are best spotted between April and May, during their breeding season.

Amboli

The popular weekend getaway does not fall in the sunshine state—it is the last hill station in Maharashtra before the coastal plains of Goa begin. But it holds a special place in Rahul’s heart because this is where he first went herping in 2010.

Ringed by the Sahyadri hills, Amboli seems to have sprung up only to surprise the eye. The Malabar pit viper and bamboo pit viper slither and twist across its foliage, camouflaging themselves on rocks and trees near streams. The king cobra and the rear-fanged Forsten’s cat snake (named so because of its feline eyes) also roam Amboli.

Pro Tip: Do not handle the snakes because it is likely to cause a shift in the animal’s behaviour. Rahul also urges visitors to be watchful of their steps and ditch the vehicle to avoid running over creatures unknowingly. (rahulalvares.com)

As told to Pooja Naik

 

Underwater Adventures

Nayantara Jain

Marine Biologist and Diving Instructor, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The Andaman Islands are every bit the paradise they peddle on postcards. Powdery white sand, check. Aquamarine lagoons, check. Jurassic-like jungles, check. Located about 1,400 kilometres east of the Indian mainland, and closer to Indonesia (200 kilometres to its east), the archipelago in the Bay of Bengal is a diver’s haven. There is no dearth of any life form here, both on land and underwater, always compelling visitors to stay back longer than they intend to. The story holds true for Nayantara Jain, a philosophy-undergrad-turned-marine biologist.

Nayantara began as a scuba diving instructor in the Andamans and Lakshadweep. It wasn’t until the major bleaching event in 2010, which severely affected the corals in reefs, that she committed herself to a cause close to her heart—protecting the ocean. With a Masters in marine biology from the California-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she returned to the Andaman Islands in 2012 to spearhead ReefWatch Marine Conservation—a non-profit involved in research and education about marine life conservation and coral reefs. Today, she shuttles between island life and her home in Bengaluru, and works to inspire travellers to do their bit while on a holiday, by signing up for conservation projects. Here are her top diving recommendations:

Havelock Island

Marine biologist Nayantara Jain (right) helms a non-profit that works towards the protection of the ocean; Johnny’s Gorge in Havelock is a diver’s haven, where encounters with colourful lionfish (facing page) are common. Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee (lionfish), Sachin Khira (diver)

Of the 572 islands in the Andamans, only 36 are inhabited and escaping Havelock is difficult. Diving here is rewarding—think swimming past psychedelic parrotfish, surgeonfish and gorgonian sea fans—but if you’re a certified diver, Nayantara recommends deepening the experience by signing up for the Andaman Coral Ecologist (ACE) diver programme developed by Reefwatch. It trains divers to notice symbiosis, feeding patterns and predation avoidance techniques among diverse fish and invertebrates. Divers can swim through strategic sites such as Fish Point and Parrots Rock that represent the reef of the region, and biological indicator of marine species have been identified to help scale environmental parameters and reef health. And that’s not all. Divers can also forge a more meaningful relationship with the sea by helping collect and upload data related to coral populations and fish.

Pro Tip: Nayantara advises against feeding the fish to attract them during a dive, as it is likely to cause a shift in their lifestyle.

Best Time to Visit: Monsoons are off season for diving. The best time to take a dip in the ocean is between October and May.

Chidiya Tapu

Give done-to-death Port Blair a miss and head to the nearby Chidiya Tapu in the southernmost tip of the Andamans. If you put on your wetsuit and dive into the waters here, you will discover a world of strikingly beautiful aquatic creatures and a moss-coated shipwreck. A Japanese warship that sank during World War II rests on its starboard side at a depth of about 80 feet. Its propeller, an engine room and cargo holders are still intact. If you swim close to the windows, you’ll be greeted by snappers, ray-finned barracuda and batfish that have made home in its nooks. Fish Point, a field base for coral reef restoration, is five minutes away.

“It is fulfilling to see new life taking root here.” Nayantara speaks of having created a reef in a region where stingrays, crocodiles and catfish are frequent visitors. At the same time, she cautions one to not hit the reef while diving or move corals from its place. (www.reefwatchindia.org)

As told to Pooja Naik

 

Pollachi Calling

Pravin Shanmughanandam

Co-Founder, Papyrus Itineraries, Tamil Nadu

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Nestled between the Anamalai hills and Coimbatore, the town of Pollachi is wild at heart. Lion-tailed macaques (top left), Asian elephants (bottom left) and great-pied hornbill (bottom right) are found in the forests of the Valparai range, while the Altaghat region (top right) is favourable for trekking. Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee (lion-tailed macaque), Keerthana Balaji (hornbill & elephants), Pravin Shanmughanandam (trekkers)

Cradled between the Anamalai hills and Coimbatore’s, Pollachi is where the land flaunts absurd shades of green. In Tamil, the word pozhil vaichi means the land of natural wealth and prosperity. Drive around Pollachi and you’ll know why: Rainforests, rivers, mountains and swathes of fields are packed into one large canvas.

However, much of Pollachi remains unexplored and overlooked by tourists. Pravin Shanmughanandam, who saw potential in the region’s tourism, quit his client servicing gig in Chennai to set up base in Pollachi in 2014. He co-founded Papyrus Itineraries, a travel company which connects guests with the roots of the region by offering immersive experiences.

“I spotted the great Indian hornbill while driving around Valparai one weekend,” Pravin recalls of his maiden encounter with the species. “It made me want to wake up early every morning to go birdwatching. Cities often rob one of such opportunities.” On one such day, he came across a group of photographers swarming under a hornbill’s nest on private land. The sight irked him, but it also planted a seed in his head. If tourism is managed the right way in wildlife and eco-sensitive zones, he concluded, the results could be deeply rewarding. Here are Pravin’s most beloved experiences in Pollachi:

Valparai

A nature walk in a part of the rainforest of Valparai is a great way to not only discover a region less-trodden, but also to understand the coexistence of man and wildlife across the belt. The area is rife with the lion-tailed macaque, great Indian hornbill, Nilgiri tahr, Nilgiri langur and Asian elephant.

Best Time to Visit: The months between June to January are favourable to visit Valparai, and the rest of Pollachi.

Topslip

The moist and dry deciduous forest of Topslip is home to more than 200 species of birds out of which at least 16 are endemic. One can chance upon orioles, Malabar trogon, white-bellied treepie as well as the leopard, Asian elephant, Indian gaur and dhole while trekking the Ulandy range.

Pro Tip: Avoid wearing bright clothes in wildlife-rich zones; it helps to blend in. Talking loudly is another big no-no.

Parambikulam

This region falls in the Nelliampathy-Anamalai landscape. It is best explored on a trek, to see how the topography shifts from an evergreen, moist to a dry deciduous forest. The landscape is peppered with endangered medicinal plants and orchids. Probable sightings in the area include rufous-bellied eagle, Sri Lanka frogmouth, and yellow-footed green pigeon.

Altaghat

This coffee plantation is owned by a group of conservationists and set amidst tropical rainforests in the Anamalais. Only travellers willing to let go of creature comforts like mobile network and electricity are able to explore the 175-acre estate on foot. The zone is managed by Kadar tribesmen, a community native to southern part of the Western Ghats. Eco-tourism is at the heart of activities here—birdwatching, hiking, trekking, night walks for herping, setting up of camera-traps, and planting endemic tree saplings in the rainforest. One can spot hornbill, trogon, endemic bulbuls, thrushes, flycatchers, nuthatches and mammals such as the elephant, leopard, sloth bear, Nilgiri marten, Nilgiri langur and the occasional tiger.

Best Time to Visit: The months between June and December are ideal to visit Altaghat. (www.thepapyrusitineraries.in)

As told to Pooja Naik 

 

Water World

Asad Rahmani

Member, Wetlands International South Asia

Wildlife Expert list

Few visitors to Odisha’s Chilika Lake (top) know that it is a Ramsar wetland; Thousands of birds, including bar-headed goose (bottom left), flock to the shores of Pong Dam in Himachal every year; The wetlands of Point Calimere host birds such as the brahminy kite (bottom right). Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Swathes of marshes and swamps might not be the first choice of a vacation spot. But wetlands are catnip for migratory birds, uncommon plants, insects, and even mammals. Think sluicing through glassy lakes, cutting across dense mangroves, or observing how hamlets and islands are connected through a strip of a wetland—all the while surrounded by the creatures that thrive in this ecosystem. In India, 27 wetlands have been identified as Ramsar Sites, deemed to be of special importance under the international Ramsar Convention, for the sheer variety of plants, birds, and animals
they host.

Asad Rahmani is no stranger to the beauty of wetlands. The former director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and now a board member of Wetlands International South Asia, Rahmani has tirelessly worked to highlight lesser-known species and habitats. “I was interested in wildlife even as a child, and had many pets growing up: dogs, cats, pigeons, fish, frogs and toads, hedgehog, peafowl, chicken, praying mantis, lizards, rabbits, grey goral, chukar partridge, parakeet… Later, when I was old enough to read, I’d lose myself in the columns of M. Krishnan—a fine naturalist, writer and photographer—that appeared fortnightly in The Statesman. I wanted to be like him,” says Rahmani. Here are his most beloved Ramsar wetlands to visit:

Kolleru Lake, Andhra Pradesh

If you’re in Vijayawada, an hour’s drive to this shallow, freshwater lake flowing between the West Godavari and Krishna districts will take you to the stomping ground of thousands of ducks and waders in winter. Kolleru is also famous for large flocks of garganey and Asian openbill.

Best Time to Visit: Winter is the best time if you’re seeking migratory birds in any of the wetlands. Summer in Kolleru has its rewards—you’d be surrounded by egrets, herons, storks, and pelicans.

Chilika Lake, Odisha

Not many people know that pear-shaped Chilika is a Ramsar site, or that the Nalabana Bird Sanctuary is a significant part of it. More than a million migratory waterfowl visit its shores every year. Nalabana is a real treat because threatened species such as Asian dowitcher, Pallas’s fish-eagle, lesser adjutant, Indian skimmer and lesser white-fronted goose flock here. The superlatives don’t end there: Perhaps the largest congregation of black-tailed godwit—about 20,000 of them—is hosted by Mangalajodi, which lies to the northeast of Chilika.

Point Calimere, Tamil Nadu

Scrub forest, mudflats, saltpans—the coastal plains that cradle this wildlife sanctuary offer landscapes as diverse as they can get. No wonder Point Calimere attracts thousands of waders, such as Temmick’s stint from Scandinavia and Russia, the long-legged curlew sandpiper which comes from the Arctic, and the globally endangered common greenshank.

Pong Dam, Himachal Pradesh

The star winter attraction of this Ramsar site in Kangra district is the bar-headed geese. Fringed by the Dhauladhar mountains, the site was declared a bird sanctuary in 1983, after large populations of birds began arriving to its shores. Birders come in large numbers to spot northern pintails, common teals, and cormorants.

 

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