On the first evening of the Wilderness Training Program at Vanghat Lodge in Corbett, as the final participants were en route through the twisty forest path, the Great Hornbills began their daily flight from one hill top to the other, to their roosting spot for the night. In the golden evening glow they glided past us, mere metres from the lodge. This was as refreshing a greeting as Vanghat’s special nimbu paani, served on arrival after the exhilarating trek to the lodge.
Despite the recent floods in Uttarakhand, Vanghat was thankfully mostly unaffected, with the only difficulty lying in the swollen river making it difficult to cross. Due to this the access to the lodge was via the longer, 4 kilometre route through lovely dense forests, which the participants gamely covered, undaunted.
The Wilderness Training Program began with an icebreaking session to help the eight participants, five RewildEd coordinators, Anurag the lodge manager and Mr. Sumantha, the lodge owner, get to know one another. The participants ranged from paediatricians from Gurgaon, a forestry student from Nainital, to a property manager from Pune. Over the next few days this diverse group came together over early morning forest treks and candle-light dinners to become something like a family.
The Wilderness Training Program began in earnest on Day 2 with a morning walk through the forest to the Ramganga river. There, Mr Sumantha’s sharp eyes spotted a herd of goral on the facing mountain – a new mammal species for most of the participants! A pair of male Plumbeous Water Redstarts vied for attention with the gorals by breaking into a scuffle over a suitable rock to perch on in the midst of the flowing waters.
The day having started fortuitously, other sightings included a barking deer, White-crested Laughingthrushes, a Siberian Rubythroat and a Verditer Flycatcher. This was followed by a delicious breakfast in the Lodge’s open-air breakfast area. The day’s lectures included talks on the History of Conservation, Insects, Scavengers, Tracking animal signs, and the Protected Area Network in India! This was followed by a tree walk, where Abir demonstrated what to look at to tell trees species apart, and a field activity where participants learned all about setting up camera traps. The day wrapped up with a feedback session over the candle-lit Kumaoni dinner – the fresh mountain air having whetted everyone’s appetites for the hearty food! A special guest for the dinner was a rather large Indian Crested Porcupine foraging just metres away from the dining area.
Day 3 dawned with a birding walk along the river, a few Goral sightings, and a meeting with Mrs. Bimla, a representative of Harela, a local women’s SHG, who spoke about both the trials and advantages of living in and around Corbett National Park. A mixed species flock was seen foraging among the trees, made up of woodpeckers, flycatchers, warblers, babblers, and adorable Oriental White-eyes! A notable lecture of the day was a talk on Elephants and their behaviour by Jaijeet, a PhD candidate studying elephants in Rajaji National Park. This popular talk covered elephant behaviour, their movement, causes of conflict and its mitigation. The evening field excursion consisted of a check on the camera traps of the previous day. The group was surprised by an alarmed sambar calling right at the entrance of the lodge!
The fourth day of the program involved a half-day trek of 8 kilometres, and an on-field forest breakfast. On this trek the group was accompanied by Mr. Negi and Ms Swati, members of the Corbett Forest Department, who discussed various aspects of their work, from combatting poachers to forest fire management. It was a warm afternoon by the time everyone returned, and several participants (and coordinators) took the opportunity to take a refreshing dip in a natural pool formed by the river, in the company of a Lesser Fish Eagle, Crested Kingfisher, and iridescent Stream Glories (a species of damselfly)! A talk on Reptiles and Amphibians by Aaranya, a wildlife biologist from WII, rounded out the day.
The last full day of the program, Day 5, began with a more relaxed morning – after the rigorous trek of the previous day – and talks on carnivores and their behaviour, and bird migration. The camera trap photos were examined and everyone was excited to see photos and videos of barking deer, wild pig, langur, porcupines, and sambar. One particularly adventurous young sambar came in for a closer look at the camera – even licking it! In the evening, as the sun set, the Great Hornbills once again graced the group with the sight of their flight as they settled in for the night. With night fall, a bonfire was lit and participants, coordinators, and Vanghat team members bonded over music and food under a starry sky.
On Day 6, the morning of departure, while some guests observed a Barking Deer from the machan, RewildEd coordinator Kushagra was surprised with the ‘Sighting of his dreams’ – one after the other, Mahseer, Otters, Goral, hornbills, and the King himself, a tiger! Despite missing the sightings, the participants were glad to share in the excitement via the videos Kushagra captured. With these marvellous sightings rounding out the program, the participants departed for their respective homes, full of new knowledge, good food and wonderful memories!