An eco-tourist’s sojourn
The word ecotourism is a highly abused term in today’s world, where one can easily enumerate several establishments that operate with no ideals or ethos of the local communities and environment under the banner of ecotourism. Our author travels to Siju Wildlife Sanctuary in Meghalaya to discover an organisation that truly exemplifies ‘ecotourism’ in its complete sense.
Travellers who have explored the distinctly picturesque northeastern part of India swear by the beauty of the landscape and the mesmerizing cultures and traditions present there; bounded by hills on all sides, its inaccessibility helping to retain much of the region’s ecological integrity.
Now, when one thinks about the immense biodiversity and natural heritage found in the northeast, Assam’s two national parks, Kaziranga and Manas, immediately come to mind. These wildlife reserves have been not only Assam’s but also northeast India’s flagship wildlife attractions. More recently, the Namdapha National Park of Arunachal Pradesh, too, has emerged as a popular destination. But there is more to choose from in this part of the country for the nature-enthused traveller than just a visit to these celebrated destinations.
Illegally mined coal lying along the roadside en route to Siju.
The Malayan giant squirrel (Ratufa bicolor) is completely at home in the dense canopies of the thick rainforests of Meghalaya.
CONSERVATION & ECOTOURISM
I had an opportunity to visit the Balpakram-Baghmara landscape (BBL) in South Garo Hills in Meghalaya for a few days during the summer of 2013. The BBL, spanning over 600 sq. km. encompasses the protected areas (PAs) of Balpakram National Park and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary, as well as vast stretches of old-growth and secondary forests straddling the tropical moist and evergreen types. As much as 85-90 percent of all forested area in Meghalaya falls outside the ambit of ‘legal’ protection due to the operationalisation of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution which grants land rights to local tribal communities; safe to say then that the responsibility to preserve the natural heritage of the landscape truly rests on the community’s shoulders.
The thick canopy of Siju Wildlife Sanctuary
Having been a field volunteer for various nature conservation projects, I have travelled to wildernesses in India before; this time, I was on a reconnaissance visit to choose a suitable study site as part of my Master’s course in wildlife biology. Now, whenever I visit a new place as a tourist, I try to scout for places that are light on the pocket and run on the ecotourism principle. ‘Ecotourism’, though, has become a much-abused term, one that is used by all sorts of tourist establishments that offer even five-star comforts like air-conditioners and swimming pools in the garb of being eco-friendly, and I did not want to be taken for a ride in one of these setups.
Siju is home to an amazing array of wildlife but is best known for butterflies and birds. There were several ‘lifers’ for the author, including the (clockwise from top left) Common birdwing (Troides helena), Common yellow-breasted flat (Gerosis bhagava), Dusky diadem (Ethope himchala), and Thick-billed Green Pigeons (Treron curvirostra).
After thorough research, I came to know about the Siju Ecotourism and Conservation Society (SECOS). Samrakshan Trust, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of the rich biodiversity of Meghalaya and particularly in the South Garo Hills, had helped form this society in 2010. It is an incentive-based, community managed ecotourism initiative, and Samrakshan initially helped in marketing it by organising regular ‘eco-tours’ for butterfly and bird-watching with trained local guides.
Mud-puddling Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona) butterflies
The primary motive guiding this initiative was to provide the local community an alternative livelihood option and an incentive to conserve the area’s forests. An overnight bus journey from Guwahati got to me to Samrakshan’s office at the South Garo hills’ district headquarters of Baghmara –a small, quaint, and uncluttered town. An hour and a half journey on National Highway 62 finally got us to my stay facility at Siju.
En route, we regularly came across piles of mined coal that were kept by the roadside. Vikash, a Samrakshan staff who dropped me till Siju and with whom I later explored the Baghmara Reserve Forest as well, revealed that coal mining had emerged as one of the most pressing threats to the forested landscape. It paid well to the people engaged in the business but was ruining the environment by causing deforestation and water pollution. Additionally, the business was also contributing to the deteriorating health of people engaged in and living around mining areas. Vikash also informed that a few illegal mines were in operation around Siju as well and that was precisely the reason why Samrakshan chose to establish the ecotourism facility there.
A waterfall located in the Siju village, near the ecotourism centre, is used by the locals as well as the guests at the centre for recreational purposes.
WILD AND BEAUTIFUL
Upon reaching Siju, which is a small remote village 5 km off the national highway, I met an interesting personality in Mr. Plinder Marak, the forty-year-old President of SECOS. Over the course of the next couple of days, I explored the forests of Siju WLS as well as the surrounding community-owned forests with him. I was mesmerised by both the natural beauty of its jungles, as well as the simple way of living of the people. While mornings were spent exploring and trekking through Siju’s forests, evenings passed by on the banks of the river, leisurely observing a large troupe of Assamese macaque grooming and playing with each other.
The tented accommodation at Siju campsite.
A lot of ‘lifers’ (first-time sightings) were added to my bird and butterfly list on this trip. We sighted the Malayan giant squirrel on a couple of occasions – an adept gymnast and a capable climber, it scurried its way on tree trunks upon noticing us and by the time I could focus my frame on it, had already disappeared down the hill. We also came across elephant dung and civet scat on a couple of occasions that confirmed Plinder’s story of the area supporting a healthy population of elephants too. We also had quite a few sightings of the Red-tailed squirrel and a single sighting of the Hoarybellied squirrel. During one of our morning treks, we also heard but couldn’t see the Hoolock gibbons – the only ape species found in India, from afar. We weren’t lucky to see any carnivores, although camera-trap studies in and around Siju by Samrakshan have revealed the presence of the beautiful Clouded leopard, Meghalaya’s state animal, in and around Siju’s forests.
ROOTED IN NATURE
Back at the SECOS eco-camp, I realised the true ecotourism nature of this enterprise, unlike many other establishments who only claim to be so. The facilities were very basic but adequate and of low impact. The accommodation facility could host up to 25 people at a time in its spacious cottages and tents. The double accommodation rooms were furbished with beds, chairs, and tables, all made out of locally available bamboo. It had a beautiful tree house too, which unfortunately was under repair during my visit. There was no swimming pool, but one could have a bath under the cool waters of the running stream behind the camp, where even the local villagers gathered in the evenings to take a dip. Filtered water was available, and so was finger-licking, tasty food cooked in the local style! So, if it is such an abused term, can we attempt to ‘define’ ecotourism?
The simple, yet spacious cottages, at the Siju campsite
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international conservation body, tries to demystify the term, defining it as ‘environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past, and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people’. Thus, the concept is deeply rooted in the conservation ethic and has a mission towards supporting the biological and cultural resources of the community.
The Siju eco-camp certainly ticked all the boxes! Are there any other such examples in this country? Homestay facilities in Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir is another such example, as is the ecotourism initiative in the Mangalajodi village on the banks of the world-famous Chilika Lake in Orissa. Perhaps, there might still be many more that do not have the marketing sense of some of the big hospitality conglomerates.
THE WAY AHEAD
Worldwide, ecotourism has been described as one of the most potent tools in the contemporary conservationist’s arsenal. It offers locals a chance to share their knowledge of the landscape with visitors and provides for cultural exchange. Ecotourism can also play a role in raising awareness of the problems facing a particular locale or its people. However, there are subtle dangers to it as well.
Because of their location in environmentally sensitive areas, ecotourism opportunities that fail to live up to the conservation ideals can have serious consequences on the environment. Thus, such operations should always be low-key, placing a cap on the number of visitors that it can support at a time. Another pitfall that the ecotourism industry must be aware of is that revenue from visitors may not be constant and could be subject to the prevailing economic and political conditions, weather, season, etc. Thus, it might be in their interest to develop allied activities such as the promotion of locally made handicraft articles so as to ensure the long-term sustainability of such ventures. Above all, it should be monitored, regulated, and evaluated periodically by the community or external experts with necessary steps taken to ensure its long-term viability without veering away from conservation ideals.
Interest in India’s places of wilderness has been on a steep rise, both from national as well as international tourists. This is India’s golden chance to showcase her natural beauty and build support for conservation, especially among her own people. Ecotourism avenues provided to the Indian nature visitor will go a long way in achieving this objective. Progressive and clear policies from the central and state governments can direct such efforts and channel it in the right direction.
Also, there is more to the northeast for an avid nature visitor than just the Kaziranga or Manas wildlife reserves. Blessed with abundant rainfall and sunshine, virgin forests, high plateaus, meandering streams, and endemic flora and fauna, Meghalaya is worth a dekko for the nature-lover in you! As for me, I returned enchanted and relieved, with the study site selection for my project finalised. It will, of course, be the South Garo hills.
DID YOU KNOW?
People from the hills
The Garo hills are predominantly inhabited by the Garo tribe, an ancient hill community from the Tibetan stock who speak the Garo language and prefer to call themselves ‘achik’ or hill people. An interesting facet of their social life, which is unlike that in most other parts of India, is their tradition of following a matrilineal society where the girl child inherits the parents’ property rights. For the Garos, Balpakram is a sacred place; it is believed that human souls rest here before beginning their heavenly journey.
Home to the dark knights
After one morning trek in Siju’s forests, I expressed my desire to visit the famous Siju caves, better known as ‘dobakkol’ or the bat cave. It is touted to be the third-longest cave in the Indian subcontinent and is located just behind the Siju eco-camp on a cliff that overhangs the right bank of the river Simsang. The Siju cave contains innumerable internal chambers and labyrinths that are yet to be explored fully. Pitch dark and home to thousands of bats, a perennial stream keeps flowing through one of the finest river passages inside a cave that has magnificent limestone rock formations inside. Surveys inside the cave have revealed the presence of 102 species of various organisms to date. As it was the monsoon season, Plinder and I were barely able to cover 150-odd metres from the cave’s entrance when the water level got too high to walk any further and we decided to head back. Nevertheless, we had already seen a huge colony of short-nosed fruit bats till then along with a mountain of a pile of guano, a couple of interesting spiders, few fishes, and crustaceans. It was an experience like never before!