Call of the wild

Some of the best nature tours, courses and volunteering programmes in India

Call of the wild

Agume Rainforest Research Station (ARRS)
Tracking king cobras using implanted radio transmitters may bring to mind absurd Hollywood blockbusters on giant, venomous snakes, but at ARRS’s King Cobra Radio Telemetry Project, it’s all in a day’s work. Amateur wildlifers with nerves of steel are welcome to volunteer at this research station in Karnataka’s Agumbe forest. Other programmes for beginners involve monitoring and recording the behaviour of various reptiles and amphibians (especially during the monsoon) for 15 to 60 days. Students may also contact ARRS for projects that revolve around the wet and wild biodiversity of Agumbe, which is often called the Cherrapunji of the South. You can expect to see lion-tailed macaques, cane turtles, leopards, flying lizards, atlas moths and countless birds.
Costs: Students Rs 100-200 per person per day (depending on the number of days), inclusive of accommodation and meals. Professionals, Rs 250-500 per person per day.
Contact: 08181-223081,

Barefoot Adventures
Ignoring the Andamans in a wildlife list is certainly fishing for trouble. And in these much-eulogised islands, Barefoot Adventures is known to offer a range of eco-tours and learning opportunities, even for those who are all at sea about under- and above-water activities. You can choose to test the waters with the Discover Scuba dive course, or go on a snorkelling excursion off South Button island, or go line-fishing accompanied by tour guides from the local Karen community (interestingly, of Burmese origin).
Costs: Rs 1,500-4,000 per person per activity, inclusive of boat costs, permit fees and naturalist’s charges.
Contact: 044-24341001, 03192-236008,

Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)
That Mumbai or Bombay, as it was known back then, was among the first to mount an effort to protect the environment seems as incredible as travelling in one of its heaving trains and emerging unscathed. But BNHS was founded in 1883, when the city was smaller and greener. It is now the country’s largest NGO engaged in nature conservation research and offers several courses, events, camps and volunteering opportunities, including several in ornithology. That last is hardly a surprise, given that BNHS counts the Birdman of India, Sálim Ali, among its former presidents. Enrol for distance learning courses that involve an annual field trip or register for a PG Diploma (run in collaboration with the Pune-based Ecological Society) in natural resource management, sustainable development and ecological restoration. BNHS also conducts several short programme —nature walks and camps—for amateurs (check the bi-monthly circular on their website); these are usually open to both members and non-members.
Costs: From Rs 50 per person for a nature walk. Courses cost Rs 3,000-6000.
Contact: 022-22821811,

The young crusaders at Spiti- (Himachal Pradesh) and Delhi-based Ecosphere come from diverse backgrounds and collaborate with Spiti locals towards conserving the environment and developing the area. They conduct a number of trips in the Spiti Valley, including wildlife trails and yak and jeep safaris as well as community-centric cultural tours. While some of their programmes have fixed departures in June and July, others can be customised to visitors’ interests and convenience. Both the Pin Valley National Park as well as the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary are usually on the agenda.
Costs: From Rs 2,000 per person per day. The cost varies according to group size and number of days.
Contact: 01906-222724, 9899492417, www.spiti

Eco Tour Camp
Throw the words ‘Gujarat’ and ‘wildlife’ at an average tourist and all he’ll come up with is Gir National Park. But the state’s tourism website lists over 15 destinations under the forests and natural ecosystems category, including the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the salt marshes of the Little Rann of Kutch. The fortunate few who have been there claim it’s a trip of a lifetime—especially if veteran conservationist and wildlife photographer, Devjibhai Dhamecha, takes you under his wing. At his Eco Tour Camp, 40km from Dhrangadhra (on the Ahmedabad-Kutch highway), Dhamecha offers wildlife enthusiasts (“not picnic tourists”) traditional, thatch-roofed koobas (huts) to stay in as well as short safaris into the desert. November to mid-February is the best time to spot Asiatic wild ass, flamingoes, chinkara, desert fox, houbara bustards, harriers and pelicans, apart from other rare animals and birds.
Costs: Rs 2,000 for two for kooba accommodation/Rs 500 per person in a tent, both inclusive of meals. Expect to pay Rs 700 per person per day extra for safaris and entry fee.
Contact: 02754-280560, 9825548090,

When it comes to wildlife and natural history tours, Ficus doesn’t believe in following the herd—the outfit tweaks its tours to meet its guests’ demands, whether it’s a fascination for mammals, amphibians or reptiles. Besides, Ficus conducts tours for smaller groups to heighten the ‘natural’ experience and reduce impact on the local environment. Covering vast expanses of the Western Ghats, it also prides itself on local support (especially from tribal communities) and on its army of naturalists who lead excursions in the Nilgiris, the Periyar region, the wetlands of Point Calimere and the shola forests near the Cardamom Hills, among others. While there are quite a few 3N/4D trips on their bill of fare, those with greater natural leanings opt for the longer (seven to twelve days), more comprehensive tours.
Costs: Rs 10,000-15,000 per person for 3N/4D, all inclusive. Longer tours cost Rs 50,000-1.5 lakh per person (all inclusive) and usually include stays at high-end properties.
Contact: 9941918519,

Help tourism
For those in the know, Help Tourism, set up in 1991, is a familiar name for eco-conscious tours and conservation efforts in the East and the Northeast. From the Sunderbans, Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh, Neora Valley in the Kalimpong Hills, the tea trails of the Dooars to the cross-border circuits in Bangladesh and Bhutan, the organisation’s pawprints in the region are deep. Help Tourism has a number of naturalist-led trips that last from 10 to 30 days. Wildlife enthusiasts who want to explore the region or volunteer for programmes such as the Red Panda or Tiger and Elephant Project can expect help from an old hand. Permits can be hard to come by in some of these areas, so one is likely to save both time and bother by signing up with Help Tourism.
Costs: From Rs 6,000-9,000 per person per day, all inclusive.
Contact: 9831031980,

Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT)
All the rogues of popular imagination—the glowering mugger and the gharial, the venomous python and the cobra—coexist under the MCBT roof. Located barely 40km from Chennai, the Madras Crocodile Bank is where visitors flock to see endangered crocodiles, snakes, turtles, tortoises, monitor lizards and amphibians such as the world’s only leaf-eating frog—often for the first time in their life. Founded by revered herpetologist and conservationist Romulus Whitaker, MCBT hosts several research projects. The Trust also invites volunteers, chosen from the many who apply every year, to work closely with its team for at least 15 days. It also has a ‘Docent Programme’ for enthusiasts who are willing to spare at least one day a month for a year to help with the maintenance of the place and work with the animals. Those who enrol are expected to attend a two-day training programme first.
Costs: Rs 1,200 per person (18 years and above) for the two-day Docent Programme (subsequent visits are free). For long-term volunteers, charges vary according to the number of days and the nature of involvement. Indians can expect to pay upwards of Rs 550 per day, inclusive of stay and meals.
Contact: 044-27472447,

Periyar Tiger Reserve
Former poachers have turned protectors and now walk this tiger reserve as tour guides. This means that just the wealth of ‘insider’ tales and anecdotes you’re likely to hear here make the Periyar Tiger Trail well worth a try. The reserve has 14-odd eco-tourism programmes that range from day-treks, bamboo-rafting on the river, patrolling the jungles with night guards to 2- to 3-day trails. Elephants, sloth bears, gaurs, giant squirrels, Nilgiri langurs, assorted birds and, if you’re lucky, tigers are all within shouting distance.
Costs: Rs 3,000-5,000 per person for the Tiger Trail, inclusive of stay and meals. Entry fee to the reserve: Rs 300. For the 3-hour day trek, Rs 100 per person.
Contact: 04869-224571,

Pugdundee, one of the best-known wildlife tour operators in Panna, Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks, will soon offer its naturalist training programme (so far available only to its staff) to anyone who’s interested. It also has a couple of 12-day volunteer programmes (the website doesn’t list them; call for details): the Tiger Study and the Rangers Programme, led by a resident scientist. One can also work with the outfit’s Conservation Cell on a number of projects, including creating corridors between Bandhavgarh and Panna for the wildlife.
Costs: Rs 35,000 per person, all inclusive, for the Naturalist Training course in September (limited seats). Rs 7,500 per person per night, all inclusive, for the 12-day programmes. Volunteering for the Conservation Cell Projects may or may not involve charges, depending on the duration and the nature of work.
Contact: 011-25885709,

Snow Leopard Conservancy
The Snow Leopard Conservancy offers wildlife enthusiasts a chance to explore Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti differently. Its eco-tour itineraries include wildlife treks in the region and homestays in remote villages. Besides being a way of bolstering the local economy, these homestays also hope to dissuade the locals from hunting down the snow leopards that prey on their livestock. You have an even chance at spotting a shen (snow leopard), but very good odds of seeing a sankhu (Tibetan wolf), lomdi (jackal) or the other wild animals and birds of the Tibetan plateau.
Costs: Rs 300 per night for the homestays, inclusive of breakfast and dinner. Charges for the wildlife trails will depend on the time span.
Contact: 01982-250953, www.snowleopard

The Blue Yonder
This responsible tourism company started as a crusade to save the river Nila in Kerala. Now, besides raising funds for the revival and regeneration of the Nila, it also designs tours across India—Karnataka, Sikkim, Spiti Valley, West Bengal, Orissa, the Andamans and Rajasthan—and Nepal. While The Blue Yonder’s itineraries seem relatively less intense, especially since it often includes cultural and culinary trails to encourage interaction with the local communities, nature lies at the heart of almost all its trips. That said, its programmes are definitely more than a walk in the park, often including rafting, trekking, snorkelling, bird and butterfly watching, yak and jeep safaris. The Blue Yonder also has a network of local experts to guide its guests.
Costs: From Rs 30,000-40,000 per person for a 7-day tour, all inclusive.
Contact: 080-41152218, 9886053286,

The Gerry Martin Project
Visit gharials, flying lizards and king cobras in their own home in the heart of the Agumbe rainforests of Karnataka; celebrate wilderness on the islands of Andaman and Nicobar; or volunteer at the Madras Crocodile Bank. The Gerry Martin Project, unlike many outfits, welcomes anyone bitten by the wildlife bug—schoolchildren, gap-year students, professionals, vacationers or committed enthusiasts. So, while volunteering for its projects could mean spending anywhere between a few days and a few months in the field, those who don’t have the time can opt for customised workshops or daylong visits to their camps.
Costs: From Rs 8,000 per person for a 2-day trip to Agumbe, all inclusive. Camps for children start from Rs 15,000 (5-6 days).
Contact: 9845779666,

Wild World India (WWI)
Trail the man-eater of Mohan in Corbett country or spot the big cats and blackbucks in Gir and Little Rann. Fish in the Ramganga near Corbett or head to Eaglenest in Arunachal to hear the nuthatch sing. Delhi-based eco-sensitive travel promoter Wild World India offers nature tours led by its network of experts across the country. WWI also supports community-led projects, such as the Mahseer Sportfishing and Conservation Project in the Western Ramganga river.
Costs: Rs 8,000-10,000 per person per day, all inclusive.
Contact: 011-46021018,

Can’t tell a pheasant from a peahen? Join the flock at Wishbone; nine out of 10 participants in their wildlife programmes are greenhorns as far as wildlife conservation goes. But once they attend one of Wishbone’s many workshops and expeditions at Agumbe, Valparai, Sakleshpur, Coorg, Bannerghatta, Wayanad and other areas, they tweet eloquent on paradise flycatchers, magpie robins, wagtails and shrikes. The outfit aims to sensitise visitors and help them identify creatures in the wild, before introducing concepts of conservation. It might, for instance, be a revelation even to people from Bengaluru that a mere 30km from MG Road, elephants, jackals and leopards walk free in Bannerghatta. Wishbone also offers tours for children, especially during the summer.
Costs: From Rs 4,500-45,000 per person for 2- to 15-day tours, all inclusive.
Contact: 9886169698,

Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO)
ZOO started out by providing educational and technical support to, well, zoos. But over the last 25 years, it has also taken up the cause of wildlife conservation across South Asia. In India, it operates out of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu and its activities are primarily anchored in South India. There are a couple of crucial ways in which ZOO differs from its counterparts in wildlife conservation. One, it believes that the link between captive facilities and wildlife runs deep. Two, its education programmes focus on relatively low-profile animal groups, like amphibians, smaller mammals like bats and reptiles. While the bulk of its training activities are with people from the trade, ZOO welcomes amateurs and volunteers as well. To participate, however, you have to register as a member.
Costs: Membership from Rs 300 annually, which includes a subscription to their monthly magazine Zoos’ Print.
Contact: 0422-2561743, 2561087,