Wildlife With A Conscience

Four experts address pressing wildlife issues and advise travellers on how to be mindful whilst interacting with a region’s natural habitat.

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The smooth-coated otters of Chorão are highly elusive, like other members of the amphibious weasel family, says Atul Sinai Borker. Photo Courtesy: Atul Sinai Borker

Discover how to responsibly get up close to fascinating flora and fauna through word-of-mouth tips and takeaways from four wildlife experts—whose conservation and research efforts have involved the likes of wild otters, saltwater crocodiles, fishing cats, and sarus cranes—scattered across splendorous Indian wildlife sanctuaries. Atul Sinai Borker talks voluntourism on Goa’s Chorão Island, Tasneem Khan discusses field-based learning in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Tiasa Adhya provides an insight into wetland ecotourism, and K.S. Gopi Sundar advises on how to best confront greenwashing.

 

Atul Sinai Borker

Founder at Wild Otters

Flanked by the bank of the Mandovi in Goa, Chorão’s thriving mangrove ecosystem is best known as the home of Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. A former Portuguese settlement, the island’s landscape is marked by unique aqua-agro features known as khazans, which were devised to facilitate the equitable distribution of water as a resource.

Often seen drolly floating belly-up in its brackish water bodies, a fuzzy, playful semi-amphibious member of the weasel family, both adored and maligned in equal measure, is known to flourish here. It’s not uncommon, especially in recent years, to discover epithets such as ‘Goa’s best-kept secret’ or ‘otter island’ bestowed upon Chorão.

Wildlife With A Conscience

Conservationist Atul Sinai Borker is a founder at Wild Otters Research that conducts walks, internship programmes and research-oriented activities, the focus of most of which is the smooth-coated otter. Photo Courtesy: Atul Sinai Borker

“Such coverage is purely for eyeballs, and irrelevant in nature,” Atul Sinai Borker, conservation biologist, opines. “Divar Island has a much better otter habitat and numbers than Chorão. Chorão got a lot of attention because we had a field base there and we created a lot of programmes, made a lot of noise. Otters are so well-spread across Goa that it’s not fair to make a statement such as that.”

Wild Otters Research, the conservation organisation Borker started in 2018, operates off the island, conducting walks, internship programmes and research-oriented activities, the focus of most of which is the smooth-coated otter. Regardless of whether the wrong kind of interest would be detrimental to the otter population anywhere in the state, he asserts that sightings aren’t really a part of experiencing these animals in the wild.

“Otters are very elusive creatures and the usual wildlife tourism model, where sightings carry varying degrees of certainty, isn’t applicable here. Their habitats aren’t easily accessible. If you’re coming with a certain expectation, know that there’s hardly anything significant to see in the conventional sense… Voluntourism, which India is slowly warming up to, is a different proposition.”

Although Borker’s no longer a part of Wild Otters Research, the collective organises conservation-focussed activities such as bat crawls and mangrove trails. However, chasing any interaction with the otters entails spending long hours in the field, and investing a week in training: setting up and checking camera traps, getting angles right.

 

Also Read: How to Travel Better: Be Conscious of Wildlife

 

“Expect to be only locating otter droppings, initially. We’re very happy when we spot fresh otter poop—it is something that gets us as excited as most people would upon seeing a tiger. It’s important to spend time, a good 20-25 days, for the experience to be immersive, because short-term volunteers (under a week) aren’t of much help. Looking for otter signs is a very specialised skill… you require a week’s training before you can start to contribute. Otherwise you can just tag along and feel that you have contributed, but in reality you haven’t,” Borker, who graduated as an engineer, quips matter-of-factly.

Reports of feral dog attacks on the resident otters,a little while ago, suggested the presence of interspecies or even human-wildlife conflict by extension. But Borker feels that such instances are nothing new, only their documentation. What is, however, a concern, is a relatively new trend: that of building steep and straight concrete retaining wallsin the khazans.

“These walls have absolutely no consideration for wildlife. When they were built for the first time during Portuguese rule, they were constructed with mud and clay. But over time, they have not been maintained as they were supposed to. Today, the solution to that is concrete retaining walls, and they’re built very straight and steep, which is a hindrance for animals such as otters, who stay at the bank most of the time, where they rest, groom and make their dens. As a result, the habitat gets continually fragmented, even for other species such as crocodiles, for whom access to the bank is crucial. This is something that will actually reduce numbers—the reproduction will go down.”

Top Takeaway: If one really wants to make a difference with volunteering, set aside at least two weeks to immerse in habitats that shelter elusive species such as otters. Try to adopt a mindset that goes beyond sightings and places value in understanding behaviour patterns based on the evolving means of documentation and interaction with animals.

As told to Prannay Pathak

 

Tasneem Khan

Founding Partner at Earthcolab

 

Wildlife With A Conscience

The Andaman Islands encapsulates rich marine life in its waters. Photo Courtesy: Umeed Mistry

 

The Andaman Islands, located nearly 1,400 kilometres east of the Indian mainland, has a magnetic pull to it. Its pristine shores are undoubtedly rewarding. But those who care to venture beyond the hotspots will be humbled by its remote environs and a plethora of marine life that teems in the surrounding Indian Ocean. Ask Tasneem Khan, who made the Union Territory her decade-long home between 2005 and 2015. 

With a background in marine sciences, Khan’s work for the last 15 years has been an intersection between field biology, conservation and education. Her stint in the archipelago introduced her to two of her favourite spots in the world—Barren Island, the only confirmed active volcano in the Indian subcontinent, and Narcondam Island, a dormant volcanic site. It was in the former that the 37-year-old first encountered a sailfish. A research expedition beckoned her to the latter, which is off limits to tourists. “On the journey to Narcondam Island, I have a vivid memory of being surrounded by a large number of pilot whales and dolphins in every direction,” she recounts witnessing rich sea life along with the endemic Narcondam hornbill. “When you have the luxury of being out in the sea for a number of days, you are invariably going to see incredible things,” she adds.  

The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park near Wandoor is more accessible to the public and worth a visit. In springtime, when the current is strong, manta rays make their way to the channel of Twins Island to feed on plankton. Little Andaman, located just before the confines of the Nicobar Islands, is spectacular and isolated from the rest of the island group. One can spot saltwater crocodiles, and even leatherback turtles that inhabit the place during nesting season. The forests are said to be remarkable too. 

Wildlife With A Conscience

Tasneem Khan spent a decade in the Andaman Islands. Photo courtesy: Tasneem Khan

Khan’s voyages go beyond visiting the region and studying its lifeforms. She places special emphasis on field-based learning, whether as a student or as a tourist, urging people to be mindful of the ecologically-sensitive zones they visit.

An influx of tourists has given rise to areas of stress in the territory. “Increasing the infrastructure to appeal to more visitors is not the solution, owing to the tiny size of the island,” she explains. It increases the pressure on the supply of fresh water amongst other resources. Waste management is another hurdle. All the garbage currently goes into a massive landfill in Brookshabad, just south of Port Blair, which Khan describes as horrific. The area does not fall on the tourists’ radar, who often just skim through the picture-perfect parts of the island. Production of power is entirely diesel generated. “We’re very far away from tidal energy harnessing in this part of the world,” says Khan, who believes the onus to create more sustainable alternatives rests on the government and local operators who profit off the island’s diesel energy consumption. 

She has tips for travellers that strive to be responsible in their approach. “Ask the right questions when choosing a particular hotel or facility,” she asserts, before further elaborating, “It is important to know how these tour operators manage their resources, where the waste goes, and how they support local communities beyond an employment perspective.” Those who wish to take the holiday experience a notch higher can attach themselves to noble causes. The Andaman Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) (www.anetindia.org), a multidisciplinary research hub and conservation centre, offers volunteering and internship positions; ReefWatch Marine Conservation (reefwatchindia.org)—a non-profit involved in research and education about marine life conservation and coral reefs—hosts diving expeditions to build awareness. 

There are also an increasing number of homestays that provide a holistic island-life experience to guests. Webi village, or the ‘hidden village’, in Mayabunder, founded by the Karen community of Myanmar in the early 20th century, opens its doors to those vying for a taste of regional Burmese cuisine and culture. “One can volunteer at a property run by a gentleman named Saw John Aung Thong, where people can go foraging and learn about medicinal plants on his farmland,” Khan vouches, based on her personal experience. 

Even though the region suffered an economic blow

in the pandemic, much of its marine life and reefs thrived due to reduced human contact and oil spillage in the waters. 

Top Takeaway: Travellers can play a key role and make a difference on an individual level while visiting wildlife-rich zones. Doing some reading on tour operators and their ethical practices can go a long way.

As told to Pooja Naik

 

Tiasa Adhya

Conservationist & Founder, The Fishing Cat Project

 

Wildlife With A Conscience

Responsible ecotourism ventures operating in habitats such as wetlands, home to fishing cats, need to pitch in with conservation efforts as well, says Tiasa Adhya. Photo Courtesy: Partha Dey

 

Set up in 2010, The Fishing Cat Project is a research and conservation programme dedicated to the highly elusive wild cat species, currently running in Bengal and Odisha in India. We spoke to the founder of the initiative, the much-awarded conservationist Tiasa Adhya, to understand the role responsible travellers can play in this crucial undertaking.  

Fishing cats used to be common in the floodplains and deltas of major rivers of South and Southeast Asia—Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Irrawaddy, Mekong. These floodplains have been majorly modified due to urbanisation, intensive aquaculture and agriculture. Whether the fishing cat populations in the remaining wetland habitats have a fighting chance to survive depends on human initiatives.  

Says Adhya, “Today, the fishing cat is found in marshlands fringing the city of Colombo in Sri Lanka and in abandoned and unmanicured compounds of heritage buildings in the city, or in the suburban landscapes of Bengal. In such landscapes, a staggering loss of fishing cat lives occur due to road kills. In Sri Lanka, for example, a citizen science programme recorded 101 deaths/injuries from 2005 to 2021 due to vehicular collisions. As responsible citizens, we must understand that the pleasure we experience by driving at breakneck speed on highways can smash precious lives for no fault of theirs.” 

Wildlife With A Conscience

Tiasa Adhya is the founder of The Fishing Cat Initiative, set up in 2010. Photo Courtesy: Partha Dey

“Wetlands are our lifelines—they are our food supermarkets, our water reservoirs and carbon sinks. We have strong wetland laws in the country and educated, sensitive and aware residents can ensure they are implemented properly. While I don’t think tourism centred only on fishing cats will be able to sustain itself or bring big economic benefits to local communities, there is, however, scope if one wishes to experience wetlands where fishing cats become a part of the picture and not the picture itself,” she adds.   

In many parts of the country, tourism ventures label themselves as ‘ecotourism.’ While integrating eco-friendly initiatives into tourism related activities is a welcome move, any responsible form of ecotourism needs to set aside a portion of their revenue for conservation of the place itself. “Tourists can mentor local communities and inspire them to take part in conserving their landscapes by setting aside a part of their revenue from ecotourism, perhaps to undertake a wetland cleaning drive,” advises Adhya.  

Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems and a lot of local communities have adapted to directly live with them. Many such communities are suffering because our river basins are being degraded and resources they once got from wetlands are thinning out. Tourists can be sensitised to realise that some human societies are integral to natural landscapes, and understand how lifestyle choices in cities can often impact socio-ecological systems miles away.  

Adhya provides an example: “In Chilika, Odisha, a wetland rice is cultivated that does not rot when monsoon waters flood them but adapt to the flooding and grow taller, reaching up to 6 feet. These wetland rice varieties provide seasonal habitat to the fishing cat. However, due to low economic returns from these crops, many of these wetlands are being leased off for aquaculture farming. But if you think about it, these are the very chemical-free crops that many in the cities want to consume. If tourists keep an eye out for wetland products that sustain local communities and promote them, we can do our part in saving a wetland somewhere. If wetland habitats persist, fishing cats will too. All of us can combine our resources to ensure that they do.” 

Top takeaway: Not just when travelling, even when home, people can often make a difference to conservation efforts through simple lifestyle choices. Interaction with and support for local communities is also a critical factor.   

As told to Samarpan Bhowmik

 

K.S. Gopi Sundar

Scientist at Cranes and Wetlands, NCF

The vistas of Ladakh, the incredible fresh flowing streams of the Western Ghats, the scrub jungles of Samana grasslands—each corner of the country has the ability to breathe soul into the weary city dweller.  “In India, there’s no place where you won’t bump into wildlife,” exclaims K. S. Gopi Sundar, an ornithologist from Bengaluru. “If you are lucky enough to be living here, there’s likely to be a bird outside your house that’s going to take your breath away.”

 

Wildlife With A Conscience

While exploring the habitat of wetland birds, such as these black-necked storks and painted storks in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, Sundar encourages questioning the ethics of birding experiences. Photo by: K.S. Gopi Sundar

 

That’s exactly how the aspiring mountaineer-turned-conservationist found a passionate curiosity towards wetland birds loitering freely in city ponds, marshes and farmer habitats. Currently the co-chair of the IUCN Stork, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group, he draws attention towards the case of sarus cranes, black-necked storks and woolly-necked storks. Found mostly in the unprotected wetlands of Gangetic plains, their population stands to be the highest in India, despite living on human-inhabited grounds. “The moment you bring in external development, that usually sounds the death knell for all of these species,” he states, elaborating on their concentration in areas with no threat of hunting and urbanisation. 

Sundar’s career has also brought him face to face with magnificent wildlife. He recalls his favourite memory of observing a black-necked crane for four hours from a distant rock in Ladakh. The moment was marked with the stillness of the crane in its nest, despite sensing a watcher’s presence.

“Photography has emerged as a great conservation tool,” he says cautiously. The work of many photographers has helped conservationists discover unexplored wetlands and chart the distribution of species. “Explorations have also led to people voicing their concerns over wetland destruction, loss of forest patches and illegal trade.” He particularly refers to the case of Amur falcons in Nagaland, where photographers worked with the local wildlife departments to stop falcon hunting. Building a sense of pride in housing one of the world’s largest congregations of these tiny raptors helped convert abusive travel into fruitful ecotourism.

But photography is also very competitive, he sternly adds, making it one of the most pressing human-avian conflict issues. “In Bengaluru, many photographers would clean away all of the vegetation around nests so no one else could photograph that particular bird—exposing it to predators. Others would completely destroy the nests. We’ve also heard of people nailing down snakes in grasslands to get action photographs of eagles attacking them.” 

The easiest mitigation technique would be limiting the entry of tourists in sensitive regions, as did Bhutan—he opines. “But we are losing conservation laws in favour of things such as tourism and development.” Episodes of nesting birds being run over by cars outside Sultanpur National Park, and renowned sanctuaries in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh becoming infamous for being litter zones with bad waste management, are making forest departments struggle with the ills of revenge tourism.

Wildlife With A Conscience

K.S. Gopi Sundar is a mountaineer-turned-conservationist, working on the conservation of wetland birds. Photo by: Swati Kittur

In an ideal world, the existence of independent bodies that rank the ‘greenness’ of operations

would help avoid greenwashing. In their absence, the least travellers can do is identify organisational faults and pass on the information. He offers a slice of advice to every traveller—pick up your trash, never underestimate the power of a strongly-worded online review to flag dodgy establishments and highlight the ones with a high regard for wildlife and locals.

Responsible travellers who wish to make a difference may start small. For birding tours, he suggests collaborating with local naturalists and insists upon questioning the ethics of all birding experiences offered—guides using playback to attract birds are deemed unethical in his books. Sundar also cautions visitors to avoid walking into avian habitats to hold birds, no matter how tempting the idea of a selfie sounds. Mindful slow travel over chasing one-time experiences can greatly help revive nature’s pockets.

Top takeaway: There’s a pressing need for conservation laws to protect wildlife, but conscious tourism and sustainable lifestyle can greatly balance human-avian coexistence in sensitive areas

As told to Muskaan Gupta

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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