Even after Pakke Tiger Reserve, in East Kemang, Arunachal Pradesh, was declared a reserve for its tiger population and diversity of its flora and fauna in 2002, poaching continued unchecked. Then came perhaps the most sophisticated collaboration between a local community and the forest department. Sixteen gaon burahs (village chiefs) of the Nyishi tribals passed a resolution that acknowledged a list of wildlife violations and encouraged conservation. The villagers followed them like commandments, and Pakke became a blessing to its biodiversity. Indeed, a hotspot with 2,000 plant species, 300 bird species (including four hornbill species, whose conservation earned the Reserve an Indian Biodiversity Award in 2016, and the endangered white-winged wood duck), 40 species of mammals (including the clouded leopard, wild dog and elephant), and many amphibians, reptiles and insects, the place continues to thrive with local collaborative efforts. For instance, Pakke Jungle Camp is run by the local self-help conservation group Ghora-Aabhe and Help Tourism. Community owned and meant to help conserve wildlife, the camp has four comfortable cottages built on stilts by local artisans using eco-friendly material. You may even spot elephants beyond its boundaries, though fences will prevent them from sauntering inside. Visitors here can enjoy local food, guided safaris and nature walks, and cultural experiences. It is best to visit between February 24 and 27, when the Nyishi’s Nyokum Yullo, or harvest festival, is celebrated. Visit helptourism.com for more.
THE WHITE TIGERS OF MUKUNDPUR
For years now, wildlife enthusiasts have gushed over the big cats. If spotting a royal Bengal tiger is an experience of a lifetime, then coming across the elusive white tiger is ten times as exciting. White tigers may be the result of genetic mutation but these blue-eyed, pink-nosed cats with white fur and ash-grey stripes are a sight to behold. Back in 1951, Mohan, a wild white tiger was captured by Maharaja Martand Singh of Rewa. Arguably the most famous and possibly the forefather of all white tigers found today, Mohan started a line of inbred white tigers that lived in captivity. White tigers are at a natural disadvantage in the forest because of their lack of camouflage, making them unable to hunt. Opened in 2016 and specifically designed to protect these rare tigers, Mukundpur Wildlife Sanctuary also marked their homecoming. A drive around the sanctuary allows visitors to see these magnificent beasts in their natural habitat. There are currently four white tigers in the sanctuary. The Mohan White Tiger Safari in Mukundpur, Madhya Pradesh, costs around `120 per person. For more information, visit whitetigersafari.in.
With clear blue waters, sandy beaches and abundant natural beauty, a holiday in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is always a good idea. However, it can be all the more memorable for divers. The islands are one of the best destinations in the country for diving. The Andaman Sea has a plethora of dive sites that appeal to divers of all levels. And certified divers, apart from day activities, can partake in night dives off the coast of Havelock Island or Barren Island to see stunning marine life in, well, the dark. Without doubt, exploring the underwater world at night adds an extra element of thrill. One needs to be cautious and experienced to see the true colours of the sea. Thanks to a night-diving torchlight, one will come across more vibrant marine life, whose colours aren’t so vivid during day dives. Also, one can find creatures that only come out after dark. Experience Andamans offers night dives; `3,700 per person.
DAMSELS AND DRAGONS
We speak not of a fairy tale here but the Karnala
Bird Sanctuary in Raigad, Maharashtra. Other than sightings of birds such as the rare ashy minivet or the vibrant Malabar trogon, prepare to find dragonflies and damselflies of all kinds and colours soaring by the canopies. You might even spot the majestic crimson marsh glider hopping along a pond or the wandering glider in its splendid shade of yellow perched on a bark by the pond side. Other dragonfly species include the ditch jewel, ground skimmer, black forest skimmer, fulvous forest skimmer, common clubtail, blue-eyed darner and lesser green emperor. Damselflies, smaller than dragonflies but with the ability to fold their wings when they’re at rest, are represented by the three-lined blue dart, black bambootail and pygmy dartlet. These insects help maintain Karnala’s food chain, and their flights, sometimes 60kmph and faster, are gape worthy. They also eat mosquitoes, and that makes them your greatest friends. Best time to visit is October and November; else, look out for the Bombay Natural History Society’s next guided walk; bnhs.org.
The South Asian river dolphin is an endangered freshwater dolphin. Its subspecies, the Ganges river dolphin, can be spotted in various Ganga distribution ranges across the subcontinent, though the numbers have dwindled over the decades. Be it in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh or Assam, one has to be lucky to spot the elusive dolphins who happen to be blind. In the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary located in Bhagalpur, the country’s only sanctuary for these mammals, one can soon take an hour-long boat ride to spot these beautiful creatures. The boat ride is an effort by of the state’s environment and forest department to increase eco-tourism facilities and is reported to start operations from October. Recent reports suggest that the sanctuary has over 300 dolphins, apart from turtles, gharials and other animals. National Chambal Sanctuary in north India and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam are also fine places to spot these dolphins. Diphlu River Lodge, near Kaziranga National Park, offers guests a dolphin boat safari down the Brahmaputra. Apart from the mammal, one can also spot various avian species on this safari. For more information see diphluriverlodge.com
SPOT ME IF YOU CAN
Have you heard of the Nilgiri marten? Probably not. The rare, small and insufficiently studied mustelid is believed to have a population of only about 1,000. If you find yourself at Pampadum Shola National Park in Kerala’s Idukki district, there is a possibility of running into these little creatures since they are endemic to the region. The Nilgiri marten is about 50 to 70cm long, dark brown in colour with a lemon-yellow patch on its throat, making the carnivorous mammal very distinct. The shola grasslands and temperate forests make it the ideal habitat for the marten, which belongs to the same family as the weasel and badger. While scholars suggest the Nilgiri marten is active throughout the day, its peak time is 9 to 11am and 3 to 5pm. However, the black wattle plant that was introduced in the shola grasslands about 30 years ago has become a threat to these mammals today. The plant diminishes the quality of the grasslands. While there are no tours on offer, do try and take a picture of the mammal if you spot it in the wild because, according to studies, their encounters with humans have been brief.
JET SETTING SAFARIS
Shower, breakfast, ride to the airport, take your private chartered plane to Umaria, check in at the Taj Safari Lodge’s Mahua Kothi, head for your first safari about 40km away at Bandhavgarh National Park and perhaps spot your first tiger. If you have wildlife on your mind, a formidable bank balance and a penchant for luxury, your day could look a bit like this. Go for Air Charters India’s 4N/5D Following the Tiger Paws package and compare the spots on the leopards at Kanha with those at Bandhavgarh. Accommodation, meals, refreshments and alcohol, scheduled safaris with experienced naturalists, all fees, insurance and taxes will set you back by `12,74,000 for a five-seater charter. Else try the Tiger & Temple Tour that mixes a Khajuraho temple tour with a Bandhavgarh visit; or the Tiger & Taj Tour, that adds Taj Mahal to the equation. Visit airchartersindia.net/main-packages.php for more.
SWIMMING WITH DUGONGS
With only about 250 remaining in Indian waters, dugongs are difficult to spot and not very well known. They prefer warm climates and shallow waters, restricting their habitat along East Africa to Australia. Dubbed sea cows, these creatures spend most of their time chomping on underwater grass. They are big with thick grey skin, scant hair and long snouts. Like whales and dolphins, they frequently come up for air. Their tails with flukes and their dorsal fins resemble those of a whale and shark, respectively. Dugongs are harmless as they are defenceless, putting them at risk from poachers who hunt them for meat and oil. The coastal areas of the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and the Andaman Islands make for preferable grazing grounds for these docile creatures. Though a marine animal, the dugong shares its ancestors with other terrestrial herbivores like the elephant and hyraxe. Dugongs can be spotted in the marine sanctuaries of Kutch, Mannar and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor in the Andamans, you can opt for the snorkelling tour to try and catch a glimpse of the shy creature. For more information see gujarattourism.com and andamans.gov.in.
DOWN THE BRAHMAPUTRA IN LUXURY
The sun rises slowly above the Brahmaputra on an autumn morning in Assam. The sounds of the jungle have been echoing since dawn. At Silghat, the start of Jia Bharali River, a pod of endangered Ganges river dolphins greets you. A couple of days ago, otters and waterbirds near Jamuguri village awed you, as Kaziranga National Park lay on your left. Someone once spotted a tiger there while they sunbathed on the deck. This is the life on a luxury river cruise along the magnificent Brahmaputra, traversing the length of Assam Valley. There are few better ways to explore the Northeast’s biodiversity and still enjoy the comfort of spacious cabins, sun decks, bars, lounges and restaurants. There are cruises that also include heritage attractions, but Le Tours to India (letourstoindia.com) has a 12N/13D itinerary exclusively for wildlife enthusiasts. It takes you to Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary near Jorhat to see India’s only ape species, Majuli Island to experience the world’s largest river island, Kaziranga National Park for the one-horned rhinoceros, Nameri National Park, and Silghat for its beautiful butterflies. Wildlife spotting cannot get any more intimate.
Most national parks and forests don’t allow visitors at night. The obvious dangers aside, it’s usually a time when one relaxes after a long day of treks or safaris. What if we told you that there was a place in India that allowed you to walk through the wilderness at night? The Periyar Tiger Reserve offers visitors a night trekking option. One can join the regular night patrol in the fringe eco-developmental zones of the tiger reserve to get a true sense of the forest in the dark. If you decide to take this trek, keep in mind that you’re volunteering to help the protectors of the reserve. You would also have to be physically and mentally strong, as the trek is about three hours long, can take place any time between 7pm and 4am, and has limited spots—just eight per slot. You will be accompanied by two protection watchers and an armed forest guard. Contact email@example.com; `1,000 & park entrance fee per person.
A DAY WITH GIANTS
Gentle and majestic, elephants have always fascinated tourists. These magnificent giants were once integral to our culture, earning a central place in weddings and festivals. And in sanctuaries and national parks they once painted the quintessential picture of India—visitors taking elephant-back rides. At the Elephant Conservation and Care Center, they rescue abused elephants that were forced into manual labour or used for entertainment and can’t return to the wild. The centre is not a zoo and they are vehemently against elephant-back safaris. But if you choose to spend a few hours here, you can not only learn about these mammals but also help care for them. A visit to the centre starts with the stories of the rescue and rehabilitation of the elephants. Depending on the time and comfort level of the elephants, they allow you to feed them fruits and assist in bathing them. In the evening, you can also go for a walk in the forest with elephants. Wildlife SOS runs a similar centre in Agra for sloth bears. A 90-minute guided tour costs `1,500 per person. For more information, visit wildlifesos.org.
When it comes to looking for a wildlife experience, we often think of dense forests or deep oceans, far removed from the cities we dwell in, forgetting the constantly-adapting wildlife that exists in urban spaces as we continue to encroach on their natural habitats. In an effort to help people shed this perception, Marine Life of Mumbai organises walks along the city’s shorelines to experience the plethora of marine life. They help you look beyond the muck on the beaches and find corals, aquatic plants and diverse marine life. Keep a lookout for starfish, hermit crabs, clams, squids, sea cucumbers, slender giant moray eels, blue swimming crabs and white-spotted whiprays, among others on a trail. If you are lucky, you could even spot an octopus or two. Marine Life of Mumbai’s organises walks and events regularly. Find out more at marinelifeofmumbai.in.