By Tallulah D’silva
My older son was turning 17 and I was keen to surprise him with a unique jungle experience. An aspiring biologist since he was barely 10, Goa’s forests were an alternate home. We drove to Mollem and embarked immediately on a magical evening walk. When it turned dark, we used small torches to light the way. And when we switched them off, the whole thicket literally glowed in the dark! Friends had often spoken about this phenomenon and I had seen amazing images of bioluminescence in Mollem’s forests, but to witness it in person was an ethereal experience!
It feels good to be home; the forest at night is so alive. A pack of jackals busy feeding on bullfrogs in the open field, chital moving close to the village edges, a Brown Fish Owl on alert high above the stream, waiting to swoop silently down on a crab or two.
We even spotted a lone Indian bison – Goa’s state animal – chomping away at lush grass on the hill slopes and, incredibly, a black panther on the prowl, moving through low branches, like a shadow.
These are but a smattering of the living biodiverse Molem forests, part of Goa's majestic Western Ghats, among the world’s finest biodiversity hotspots and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot
Goa has six wildlife sanctuaries – Bondla, Mhadei, Netravali, Cotigao, Dr. Sálim Ali, and Mollem (part of the larger Bhagwan Mahaveer-Mollem National Park). In recent years, several young researchers, scientists and experts have been instrumental in discovering new species endemic to Goa, thus calling attention to the state’s unique, pristine flora and fauna. This includes the Goan slender gecko Hemiphyllodactylus goaensis, a species of pipe wort Eriocaulon goaense, a wasp species Kudakrumia rangnekari named after Goa’s odonata expert Parag Rangnekar, an underground blind ant Vaibhav’s Protanilla, a frog Fejervarya goemchi and yet others that have been and are yet to be discovered in the last few years in the protected forests and even at university campuses in Goa.
The Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary in Mollem was the first wildlife sanctuary to be notified in Goa, in 1967. But, sadly, even after over 50 years, Goa is yet to have a management plan for its protected forests.
Thanks to crack ornithologists, the tiny state of Goa has seen its checklist of birds swell to 475, including lifers such as the Sri Lanka Frogmouth Batrachostomus moniliger. Photo: Kedar Kulkarni
Early tourism in Goa was largely focussed along the coastal belt and the number of visitors was really low. This was in the 60s. Most tourists that arrived in Goa then were ‘hippies’ in search of peace and an escape from the stress of urban life. Many such peace-seekers arrived from America, and were part of a youth and countercultural movement that was turning away from conformism and war. Goa was a welcoming paradise for them. They would be mostly near the beaches, make friends with the local fishing community, stay in their homes or in ‘spare rooms’ and share what simple meals they offered. This continued into the 1970s, when the same locals began to set up small eateries and would take the tourists on local excursions when they were free from their traditional occupations such as fishing and agriculture. The magnet for tourism then was Goa’s pristine environment and a spirit of simplicity and friendliness. Tourism was people-driven. There was no government involved, no advertising and no promotion.
At the time, beach tourists were so non-intrusive that olive ridley turtles happily visited the coasts to lay their eggs with no disturbance whatsoever. Dolphins too were left alone in the estuarine waters and otters and crocodiles were commonly sighted by locals.
Today, coastal tourism in Goa is mired in hedonism and is inching its way into the hinterland. Earlier, visitors would arrive only during the non-monsoon period; today they throng in all seasons, particularly during the monsoons when waterfalls and pristine greenscapes on the periphery of the Western Ghats offer ‘adventurous’ escapes. But all this has come at the cost of disturbance to both locals and to Goa’s precious biodiversity.
Years before ecotourism became a buzzword and its economic benefits were even understood, a small number of sensitive entrepreneurs had already begun to test its waters. The Backwoods Camp, set up in 1989 in Mollem near the Tambdi Surla 13th century heritage temple, has been a great getaway for birdwatchers from far and wide. It became a favourite haunt for Britishers to clock lifers and return with really high bird sightings. Thanks to crack ornithologists Goa’s combination of forest, mountains and coasts saw its checklist of birds swell to 475. At one time the only location where the elusive Ceylon Frogmouth was reliably visible was the Backwoods camp, founded by Quepeleio D’Souza and fuelled by his passion and determination to showcase Goa’s beauty.
The Wildernest Nature Resort was later set up by the enterprising Captain Dhond in the magical backdrop of the Vajra Sakla waterfalls. He converted deforested and degraded mining lands at Chorla Ghat area at the juncture of the Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka borders. Working shoulder to shoulder with him was Goa’s celebrated artist-turned-herpetologist Nirmal Kulkarni (link to awards), who has helmed this biodiverse jewel since 1997. Not surprisingly, Wildernest was transformed into a hotspot and proved to be a vital wildlife corridor. Numerous awards in the responsible tourism category followed and Nirmal, in his capacity as Director of Ecology, became a celebrated ‘go-to’ conservationist, herpetologist, youth leader, and ecologist for scientists and students alike.
Another successful tourism enterprise was Nature’s Nest in Sancordem-Dharbandora, an award-winning wildlife and birding enterprise set up by Pankaj Lad and Ramesh Zarmekar in 2010. This is now a most sought-after destination for researchers, enthusiasts and other serious experts. It is also the only travel outfit that conducts a one-of-a-kind, wildlife safaris in Goa offering trips to study and photograph the endemics of the Western Ghats. And how can we forget Alex Carpenter, a conservationist and founder of The Tribe Goa who in 2015, set up the off-grid eco village on an abandoned six-acre cashew plantation, taken on lease in Canacona. In his words, “In five years, the land was re-established with canopy and soon Malabar gliding frogs, giant squirrels and Slaty-legged Crakes re-established themselves. Today researchers and naturalists confirm having documented hundreds of species of fungi, including multiple bioluminescent species. And the most wonderful birdlife, which is accessible and somewhat accustomed now to human presence.” There are, of course, more people on this list. But in spite of these beacons leading in the wildlife tourism space, the Goa State Forest Department is yet to adopt these best practices.
So, what is the state of our Protected Areas? Sadly, the trail of litter, mismanagement and utter apathy has become visible throughout Goa, even in its forests.
The author’s visit to the Pali waterfall with a large group of senior citizens was an impromptu trip planned while she was visiting a friend’s farm in Valpoi. Nestor Rangel, an enterprising farmer, accompanied them through varied landscapes of terraced fields and hill slopes until they reached the stunning waterfall. Photo: Tallulah D’silva
At a friend’s farm in Valpoi, Nestor Rangel, an enterprising farmer who has transformed the way land is farmed, escorted our group, largely comprising senior citizens, to the nearby Pali waterfall. There, on foot, the group was able to explore different landscapes ranging from terraced fields to hill slopes… to finally reach the freshwater stream that turned into a pure waterfall. Responsible tourism has become a catchword, but in this exquisite haven through which Nestor lovingly guided us, we discovered plastic litter strewn all along the way! We were all heartbroken and collected what waste we could. But even as we walked, we observed, to our dismay, local visitors and tourists in gregarious groups carrying packaged food, soft drinks in PET bottles and alcohol in the guise of aerated soft drinks. The Forest Department has several check posts along the trails to the waterfalls and they do what they can, but the garbage keeps piling up.
Nestor’s group comprising local farmers have come up with suggestions involving local village youth to be trained as guides, with identification cards. They also suggest that entry and registration fees be charged at kiosks managed by trained youth, forest guards, and women's self-help groups. This would dramatically enhance monitoring, management and accountability. Sensitive locals would also be able to brief visitors on forest etiquette, safety and biodiversity at entry points. Local guards at the waterfall, Nestor suggests, are vital to ensure that all visitors arrive at a place that is both pristine and clean and that safety remains a non-negotiable priority.
Alex Carpenter also suggests that ecotourism best practices be adopted from nations such as Costa Rica so that local communities are able to sustain themselves with pride and the tourism experience of Goa’s guests is enhanced.
Parag Rangenekar, one of the most respected voices for natural Goa adds, “Two existing models managed by local communities like Angan Homestay in Netravali and Jungle Trails Homestay in Talde Sancordem (by Mrugaya) are tried and tested and provide valuable lessons.”
He worries however that ministers and bureaucrats in charge of Goa’s forests keep changing and new entrants arrive with their own ideas, which are not always in consonance with the eco-sensitive locations, or the sensibilities of local communities. To restore biodiversity and improve tourism he suggests that the Goa Forest Development Corporation (GFDC) Ltd. should embrace community-run models that have shown results elsewhere in Goa.
There is unanimity across the board among both wildlife experts and social workers that one thing that must change in Goa is the policy of investing in unsustainable and unprofitable agroforestry through monocultures of teak, acacia and eucalyptus. The Goa government is in possession of vast swathes of such monocultures that need to be rewilded, with help from locals working with biodiversity experts. There is huge potential for Goa to take the lead in regenerating such areas as Karmal Ghat, that lie close to the sea. These were once thriving evergreen forests, now turned into plantations for the most part.
We are in the midst of an existential climate crisis and tourism can help us mitigate and adapt by restoring lost ecosystems – wetlands, forests, mangroves, sandy beaches and corals back to health. All these are infrastructures that have protected Goa and can boost both tourism and create large numbers of jobs and livelihoods.
It will take considerable vision and determination on the part of planners and policy makers, including Goa’s new Forest Minister Vishwajit Rane (also the Town and Country Planning Minister) and Deviya Rane, Chairperson of GFDC Ltd., who have been erroneously advised that “there are no tigers in Goa”, even though Goa’s tourism sector would get a real boost if the state were promoted as a tiger state, with a suitable parcel of land declared as a tiger reserve.
This is probably because mining interests feel threatened because tiger presence would come in the way of expanding mining activities into forest lands where massive tree felling is being mooted for projects proposed in the dense forests of Vagheri Sattari, ironically so named after the tiger! Another one of Goa’s very respected conservationists, Rajendra Kerkar, from Keri, Sattari, has affirmed the presence of as many as six tigers – three each in the Mhadei and Mollem forests.
Goa is a heaven on Earth. Its tourism potential is much greater than its mining potential in the long run. What is more, responsible, sensible tourism has the capacity to provide jobs, enhance Goa’s brand equity and control the cycle of floods, droughts and storms that are the handmaidens of our climate crisis. Young Goans are aware of such issues and are openly willing to work with the tourism sector and with Goa’s new Forest Minister to usher in the kind of eco-tourism that would benefit the environment, local communities and Goa’s economy. We trust that self-interest of the people of Goa will win the day and bring about a new age of prosperity, dignity and brand equity for this relatively small but very vital part of India’s geography.