The third edition of the Wilderness Training Program was held at the Vanghat Lodge from 21st to 26th January 2023. Our first day started off productively – with all the participants having reached the lodge by morning, we could take a lovely nature walk on Champion’s Trail, named for F.W. Champion. Several bird species were spotted along the way, including Black Bulbul, Bush chat, Whistler’s Warbler, a pair of Emerald Doves, a Crested Kingfisher, and a pair of River Lapwings by the Ramganga river. After an introductory ice-breaking session, RewildEd coordinator Kushagra gave a talk on the history of conservation of India. Over dinner, everyone recounted two observations they made that day, a practice we continued every night of the program!
The second day of the program dawned cold and clear, with the morning starting with several bird species like White-crested Laughingthrush, Grey-Headed Woodpecker, Red Junglefowl, and Blue-Winged Minla. The participants were led on a tree walk to understand flora of the region, and then given a talk on forest types in India. Post-lunch, participants were led on a trail to observe animal signs and learn how to set up a camera trap, and why these instruments are used by wildlife scientists. This was followed by an interactive exercise on developing a wildlife research study, which was greatly enjoyed by participants. One of the participants, Mr. Shiben, an artist, conducted a wonderful session on sketching and shading birds. Every Wilderness Program, we are lucky to have participants share some of their own diverse knowledge, whether on stellar navigation or wildlife art.
Day three started with a competitive bird-identification exercise, to teach how to use a bird guide and get participants comfortable with identifying new species. As we ate breakfast, we got to see a Mountain Hawk Eagle, and a Greater Goldenback – lifers for many of us! The camera trap placed the previous day was checked – a barking deer was captured, and the camera was placed again to observe more species over the next few days. Post-breakfast, the group crossed the river on raft to trek to a nearby waterfall. This trek was very fruitful with some incredible sightings, including a Common Green Magpie and some Tawny Fish Owls! Other fascinating sightings include a Velvet-Fronted Nuthatch; a shrike-babbler species; Indian Screw Fruit (Helicteres isora) or marodphali; tiger scratch marks on a tree and scat. In the evening, Bhavya gave a session on nature writing, where she spoke about examples of nature writing in India and other parts of the world, and her process for writing and publishing essays about nature and the environment.
The fourth day began with a short nature trail to the watering hole. We spotted a Blue-Throated Barbet and Rusty-Cheeked Scimitar Babblers along the way. In the evening, Mr Sumantha Ghosh, owner of Vanghat Lodge, gave a talk on sustainability, with special reference to the tourism sector. This was followed by a talk on ungulates by Bhavya, and a talk on elephants and their biology and behaviour by Kushagra, who also spoke about is research on wild elephants in Chhattisgarh.
On Day 5, Bhavya spoke on carnivores and their ecology in India. During a short break we saw a Blue-capped Redstart and two Lesser Fish Eagles, as well as the goat-antelope, the Himalayan Goral, on the cliffs across the river. This was followed by a talk on forest policies in India. One of the participants, Ms Abhilasha, gave a talk on her experiences with women of the Hargila Army in Assam, who work to protect the Hargila or Greater Adjutant Stork. The Great Hornbills were finally spotted after several days of waiting, much to everyone’s delight when they flew past! The night ended with a bonfire and some songs. The next day, participants and coordinators visited the Harela Shop near Ramnagar to meet Mrs. Vimla, a member of the local women’s self-help group, Harela. Vimla ji spoke about the experiences of her community, their relationship with wildlife and the tiger reserve, and their relocation from the park many years prior. This interaction gives participants a very important perspective – that of people who live with wildlife in their backyards and even homes. After a wonderful and illuminating talk, everyone departed for their respective destinations, each taking a piece of the wilderness back with them!