Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Nagzira : a sleeping gem

It was around 1030 one night when I had received an invite to visit Nagzira WLS. Nagzira? Where? While I continued to speak to Rajneesh Naidu of India Reconnoiterd, my mind was Googling to find this place on the map of India. Rajneesh was hosting an event named ‘Rendezvous at Nagzira’ where he had invited 20 guests from different spheres of life. I had a busy travel schedule for May, but the idea of meeting many photographer friends was enticing. Talking to some of them did not solve the mystery as all of them were clueless about the agenda of the event.  

Jai displaying Flehman's Response
11th May, 2012. The Indigo flight from Delhi to Nagpurdeparted on time and arrived before time. I like travelling by Indigo for this reason. Udai, Shovna and Suez Akram (of Serai Tiger Resort, Tadoba) was in the same flight. We shared the vehicle provided by the organizers for the 120km road trip from thereon. It was peak of summer in May, and Nagpurhappens to be one of the hottest places of India. We had the AC on for 100km, but switched it off for the last 20km of the journey to acclimatize. In two hours we were expected to be out on a safari under a blazing sun. As we left the highway at Sakoli and started moving through a sparsely wooded area, the warm breeze wafted in made me feel that it would not be hot as was expected. Green cover always helps to keep temperature couple of degrees lower.

Some guests had already arrived at the camp. The campsite is just inside the first level entrance gate to the park. Visitors to the park have to obtain entry permits at this gate. We joined the lunch party which doubled up as a familiarization session. Motley of crowd from various walks of life – conservations, tour operators, media, photographers, tourists, resort owners, formed the group. I was happy with my tag of tourist. The campsite is a socio-economic development initiative of Forest Deptt and is run with the help of the Pitzeri Village Eco Development Committee, a body of local villagers.  Most of these villagers are rehabilitee from the core area of the park. As a conservation initiative, Rajneesh’s group has provided financial assistance to the project. The 5 acre campuses have about 10 basic tents of different capacities, each equipped with a cooler. The campus has a rustic feel about it. A few more trees will make it cooler. Tents layout also needs to be re-worked. There are a few small shops outside the entry gates which stayed open quite late for the remoteness of the place.

Veeru making a majestic entry to the scene
Post lunch we setout for first safari. The core area of park is about 5-6 km from the entrance gate. You have to cross a second gate, which was the earlier boundary of the park. I shared the gypsy with good friend Udai and Shovna. Local lad Bhavesh Nirwan was the 4th companion in our gypsy. The park is like his backyard where he comes almost every weekend. Having him as our companion was an added bonus as he had excellent knowledge of the jungle. The park was in news those days for regular sighting of A-mark female tigress with her two sub-adult cubs Jai and Veeru. This peace of news has ensured a heavy stream of tiger tourists. 99% of the tourists are day visitors who have single point agenda – tiger sighting. Tiger was low on priority on the first trip. We wanted to have a feel of the forest. Roads are fairly well defined and were in good condition, though dusty. Terrain is mixed, but generally plain with occasional hillocks to climb. The forest has only one natural water source, a lake by which the forest rest house Neelay is located. Till the camps came up, this was the only option to stay. Due to scarcity of natural water sources, the Forest deptt has built many artificial waterholes across the parks which are the lifeline of the park. In summer time, waiting near these waterholes provides rich dividends as animals will invariably come to these to quench thirst. Safari generally moves checking one after another of these numbered waterholes. ‘Pehle 2 no check kar lete hein, then we will go to 7no’… this is how Bhavesh and the guides decided our course of safaris. During the four safaris, we had many sighting of A-mark and the two cubs. After having covered most corners of the jungle, we decided to wait for them at a waterhole on our third safari. After locating Jai and Veeru, we choose our spot carefully by the nearest waterhole anticipating tiger’s route to the waterhole. During the hour long wait, Jai and Veeru were resting inside bushes, around 100 mtr off the waterhole. The tiger tourists, many in private AC cars, were crowding around that place trying to get a peek of the sleeping tigers. To many of them we looked stupid to sit out in the sun, but we knew what we were expecting. Jai and Veeru did not disappoint us. They came out one by one, walking majestically to the waterhole, along our anticipated path and provided us with one of the best photographic sightings of my life. The light was great for photography. Eventually we left our spot after 10 min of relentless shooting to let others enjoy it. The other fantastic sighting was of a flock of about 20 wild dogs. We missed a leopard sighting by a whisker. Despite our effort, we missed Dendu, the dominant male which is known to be temperamental and charges at vehicles.

Nagzira is yet to be declared as a tiger reserved. It is a Wild Life Sanctuary (WLS), an IUCN Category IV habitat. It was declared a WLS in 1970 and has an area of 152sq km. Both the core and the buffer area are being extended to expand the habitat. All the villages have been rehabilitated out of the core area. It has about 15 tigers, besides leopard and bears. The prey base appears to be small which is a cause of concern. Lack of natural water bodies will continue to hound the park. The lone lake is big enough and was having enough water. Tankers use to pump water from this lake and ferry it to the artificial water holes.

Tourist facilities at the park as of now are limited. Because of lack of infrastructure tourism is at nascent stage. The gypsies are too few and most of them are rickety. These are apparently 3rd /4thhand brought from other parks. Rajneesh apprised us of an initiative to finance new gypsy which are likely to come by October 2012. Once new vehicles arrive, entry of private vehicles, at least the diesel ones, will be banned. Authorities are forced to allow private vehicles which were a nuisance. The moment the tigers appeared in the scene, it was a melee. The guards had hard time controlling vehicles. This has come to be a common issue almost all tiger reserves. Nagzira is no different.  Accommodation as now is also limited. Besides the tents, there is a forest rest house. A luxury resort was seen coming up in the periphery of the park. Make sure to book your accommodation and safari before you reach. In my opinion, one should combine this visit with Tadoba.

On the final evening the group sat down to share their experiences and suggestions. The agenda of this event war to expose this motley crowd to this place called Nagzira and discuss on the dos and don’ts to make it a quality destination in future. Sustainable development with concern for conservation was the focus of discussion. Need of the hour is to find a sustainable alternative livelihood for the locals to keep them falling prey to lucrative poaching. Development is a two edged sword. Developing tourist infrastructure will bring in more tourists and hence more means of livelihood for locals. More tourists also mean more funds for forest to spend on conservation. On the other hand, development will destroy some its wilderness and pristine charm. Nobody wants Nagzira to be a la Tadoba or Ranthambhore. It will attract quality tourist only if it can stay untouched of mass commercialization like many other tiger reserves. The big positive for the park is that it has Tigers and they are regularly seen.

Veeru in a royal stance
A lively deliberation that evening enlightened us about initiatives being taken at different corners of India. It was heartening to know that trusts are being set up for each park where all gate fees collected will get parked and will be used only for conservation and socio-economic activities undertaken by the park management. Till now all gate fees collected used to go to the common state treasury, which is used by cash strapped state governments for all purposes – from paying salaries of government employees to btild roads elsewhere. We all believe that fund generated from tourism of a wildlife park should be used only for conservation and maintaining the park.

Rajneesh played a perfect host. From cabs to safaris to food to meeting with forest officials – they took care of everything during those two days. Their hospitality had blown us over. They took care of even small details like, ensuring bottle of mineral water in the cabs. I made several new friends during those two days, some of whom I may not meet again. But Rajneesh is the one whom I will certainly be meeting again and again in future. Looking forward to my first trip to Tadoba.