Would any one travel all the way to Meghalaya to watch butterflies? A recent initiative in the Garo Hills shows that pure unadulterated nature is a big draw.
Have you made a trip recently to any one of the larger National Parks? Well, a trip to Corbett or Ranthambore, with its hordes of tiger seekers and rows of jeeps queuing up to watch the elusive cat, is enough to make you wonder whether this is the direction Nature tourism should be taking. A sighting of the tiger is met with a flurry of activity: smoky jeeps, hordes of camera-clutching tourists, scrabbling for a glimpse of the tiger... all so that you can go back with a tick on your list and a topic to boast about at home.
Witnessing crass, commercial tourism that exists in many protected areas often makes me wonder whether a different model can exist. One in which people “enjoy” Nature, in which the sounds of the forest are heard, one in which the fragrance of wild flowers drifts onto you, one in which butterflies flit by magically, like in one of those gorgeous natural history films.
A recent initiative, which I was fortunate to be part of, promises to do just that. In the Garo Hills, western Meghalaya, is unfolding a venture in which Nature tourism offers you just that: pure, unadulterated nature! The three hill ranges in Meghalaya are the Jaintia, Khasis and the Garo Hills. Of these, the Garo hills have the best forests, as agriculture, mining and other human activity have reduced the forests of Jaintia and Khasi Hills to a shadow of their former glory.
The mystical Garo Hills is the land inhabited by the Garo tribe. The Garos or the A-chik Mande, as they are also called, literally means "hill people". Here, in the Balpakram-Baghmara Landscape, is the 220 sq.km. Balpakram National Park, the six sq.km. Siju Wildlife Sanctuary and the 50 sq. km of reserved forest of Baghmara and Rewak. Alongside these protected areas are 300 sq.km. of community owned lands. These pristine forests are yet untouched. Though many villages (or Akings, as they are called in Garo), exist in the community forests, the habitat quality is spectacular. The area is home to the Asiatic elephant, Hoolock gibbon, leopard cat and numerous other mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects.
My first visit to the Garo Hills was in the winter of 2009 at the invitation of Samrakshan, an NGO that has been working in the Garo Hills for several years, attempting to save the area's forests and its associated biodiversity. The area's terrific biodiversity, revealed to me during my initial visit, set in motion another idea. We observed that the butterfly diversity and density of the area were terrific. Numerous rare species, including many that were part of the Schedule I and II of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, revealed themselves. Could we not use the area's butterfly fauna to attract tourists? Numerous visits by many experts followed to gain an in-depth understanding of the area's butterflies, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
Samrakshan Eco-Tours formed ventures with the local community at two locations in an attempt to motivate them to not only earn a livelihood from tourism but also as an incentive to stop proposed coal mining in the area and to protect their forests. Ensuring the ventures were eco-friendly, equitable and sustainable was a crucial part of the venture. Home-stay based tourism ensured that the ventures do minimum damage to the ecosystem. Significant part of the revenues flows back to the local community. Ongoing training ensures that the local community is learning even as the venture is starting up. Many doubts persisted, with us and the local community. Who would travel all this way to watch butterflies? And as for amphibians and reptiles... you got to be kidding, right. Nobody is gonna pay to watch these creatures!
A year has passed. The tourism venture is up and running. The first year has been spectacular; a stream of tourists has visited the area. Two large groups from Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, visited in March, 2011 and were thrilled with the butterfly sightings; other tourists revelled in the area's moth and butterflies. Another group of visitors from DiversityIndia in July landed up to explore the area's amphibians and reptiles.
Suddenly, non-believers became believers; fence-sitters no longer sat on the fence! Garo Hills is now a butterfly hotspot, on the “must-visit” list for butterfly watchers! The local community has been slowly won over. Nature tourism could work, even in the remote Garo Hills! It is a long way to travel, especially for city folks. But, if you want to smell the grass, feel the rain, hear the Hoolocks, and witness the spectacular butterflies and moths, winged fairies as I like to call them, then Garo Hills is for you!
Sanjay Sondhi is a naturalist with Titli Trust (www.titlitrust.com), a Nature conservation NGO. E-mail: email@example.com.
For more information visit www.samrakshan.org or write to firstname.lastname@example.org