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The Resurrection

The Resurrection

In the last few months, there has been widespread debate in India on the role of tourism in conservation. Nirmal Kulkarni shows us how Wildernest, a tourism venture, has become a hardcore conservation project that has saved species and restored critical wildlife corridors at the tri-junction of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The stunning falls of Vajra are just one of the treasures protected within the boundaries of Swapnagandha, a landscape that was consolidated and protected in bits and pieces through the vision of Captain Nitin Dhond.PhotoCredit: Courtesy Mhadei Research Centre.

A man on a mission

It all started with a trip to the Swapnagandha valley a decade and half ago. Captain Nitin Dhond from the Merchant Navy, our Managing Director today, found a parcel of land that was a vital wildlife corridor. However, it was in disarray – degraded due to pressures of timber and mining lobbies and cash crop monoculture planters. His vision brought together a team of nature lovers and wildlife professionals to create a dream project that initiated and paved the way for environmentally-responsible tourism in the region.

Captain Dhond put his entire life’s earnings and his monthly salary to buy the land in bits and pieces. As a trained ecologist who had worked in and near forests to foster awareness about natural ecology, I joined him in his endeavour to revive this land. It took five long years (1997 – 2002) to acquire the land that became Swapnagandha, where all deforestation and other activities inimical to forest restoration were stopped.

Eight years after Swapnagandha became operational, and its 450 acres of forest now a private sanctuary, Wildernest has managed to work with locals to dramatically curb wildlife poaching. In the process, the catchment area of two important tributaries of the Mhadei river – the Halatar nullah and the Valvanti river have received a second lease of life.

The Wildernest Resort today is truly one of a kind, functioning not simply as a tourism venture or a protected forest, but as the core of a community venture that works hand-in-hand with locals to better their livelihoods while safeguarding the wilderness.Courtesy: Mhadei Research Centre.

How was this done?

A two-fold approach was used to recover the area. On the one hand, extensive plantation of native forest species was undertaken using methods that included seed dispersal with the help of experienced field botanists. Local communities also helped by planting especially chosen saplings. Of course, complete protection was afforded to the land that connected the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary forests of Karnataka to that of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary of Goa – a process that involved regular consultation with communities, patrolling by staff and, of course, very closes cooperation with the Forest Departments of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

In keeping with its ‘minimal interference’ policy, Wildernest itself took up only three acres of the corridor area of 450 acres. The 45-odd service staff comprises people from six villages in the three neighbouring states of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra, who are the torchbearers of eco-consciousness in their own respective villages.Wildernest, as a resort, has evolved from being a space for nature tourism to a venture that provides an alternative livelihood for locals whose lands had been ravaged by mining and timber extraction. It has been at the forefront of promoting Acacia and other recycled wood for infrastructure, a trend being emulated across the state. In addition, it has installed bio-waste pits that create manure, plus a no-plastic policy coupled with recycle and reuse policies that have resulted in a pristine, litter-free forest.

The value of wildlife corridors is often underestimated, yet they are the missing link that guarantees the survival and continued existence of a variety of wildlife species, like this Chorla giant stripe Ichthyophis davidi, the largest yellow-striped caecilian, described only recently in the Western Ghats by a team of researchers, including the author.Courtesy: Mhadei Research Centre.

Documenting change

Nature does fix itself, but it was vital that the process of repair be documented. Working with a team of dedicated field biologists we did precisely this. Field data on the flora and fauna of the region was meticulously collected and analysed. This included visual observation, photo documentation, grassroots level village meetings and training of local NGO volunteers. Wildernest always intended to partner with local communities and this was instrumental in raising conservation awareness and even pride, in their heritage, among people living in the region.

By equipping grassroots level experts and NGO volunteers with the resources to spread wildlife education, as seen in this image of a young woman using a field guide to identify a snake, the organisation is truly making a difference.
Courtesy: Mhadei Research Centre.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 6, December 2012


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