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Sunday, March 9, 2003
Travel

Close to nature, yet not far from civilisation
Ervell E. Menezes

Lions lazing about in the Mollem National Park, Goa
Lions lazing about in the Mollem National Park, Goa

TEN kilometres up on the Usgao-Valpoi road is a board, which says: "Six km to Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary". Cut to the right, and you start ascending. The vegetation gets denser, the air rarer and the climate cooler, almost bracing. The road winds uphill and the further you go from civilisation, the closer you get to mother nature. Minutes tick away and soon there's no human being in sight; on and on you drive till you get to Bondla and its denizens, a quaint but accessible world within two hours of motoring distance from Panjim or Mapusa. Margao is a little further.

"The beauty of Goa is that unlike the Andamans or Arunachal the wilderness is not remote," says Richard D'Souza, Managing Director, Goa Forest Development Corporation. Although Bondla has an animal population of around 150, it is not a zoo but an orphanage for animals and a rescue centre for wounded denizens. It is a place with a distinctive ambience and a haven for animal and nature lovers.

Covering an expanse of around 8 km of hilly tract, it has 48 hectares devoted to eco-tourism. Of this, the mini-zoo covers 28.5 hectares, the farm (growing elephant grass) six hectares and the staff headquarters three hectares. There are 11 cottages (available for Rs. 200 per day) for those who want to breathe in tranquillity in the womb of Mother Nature.

When I visited Bondla a couple of years ago there was a wide variety of flora and fauna and even a full day is not enough to sample its wares. For plant lovers, there is a greenhouse covering an area of 100 square metres and treasures a wealth of ornamental plants. There are over 300 specimens of indoor plants and this includes a plethora of cacti.

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There were four leopards in the cages, excellent specimens, specially the largest but the animals were given no names as this would lead to a sort of attachment to the staff. The lionesses were easily the pride of the mini-zoo but sadly they are now dead and plans are afoot to get a lion from the Hyderabad zoo. The bison is also quite regal. There were three specimens, but the male was the best, big, black but very lazy. It took hours to budge but when it eventually did and turned its head it really looked regal.

Deer-stalking was an interesting exercise as the six-hectares deer park zigzags along the hills and as you spotted a herd the car engine had to be shut off. Our photographer Darryl Andrade had a tough time "shooting them." You had to get them away from the trees and then wait for them to turn their face. Some are like female models on the ramp, they know how to pose for the camera but most of them are camera shy. But watching deer move was sheer poetry. Sambhar stag (male), sambhar doe (female), cheetal (spotted deer) and chowsingha (four-horned antelope) moved gazelle-like uphill and down the dale and the slightest sound is enough to send them scuttling.

The two bears languished in the midday heat, drowsy like lotus-eaters, not up the trees and one would have liked to have seen them. The snakes slithered around in their glass enclosures, 11 cobras, four pythons, three vipers and five sad boas provided enough variety for these much-feared crawling creatures.

Yes, Bondla was a good experience but D'Souza said the concept of the zoo is changing the world over. No one wants to see animals in cages, they have to be out in the open. "We are promoting Cotigao, Dudhsagar and the Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park in Mollem," he said but the point is to manage them well like they do in Kenya where wildlife tourism is a major foreign exchange earner.

When Goa was under President's rule two years ago the then Goa Governor Lt Gen (retd) J.F.R. Jacob did much to promote wildlife tourism. He helped to add to the wildlife sanctuaries by commissioning the Madei and Netravali wildlife sanctuaries even though there was political opposition to it. A good deal of illegal mining is also taking place in Goa and this lobby was bent upon thwarting his efforts.

My next wildlife visit was to the Bhagwan Mahaveer and the Mollem National Park but before that we visited Bondla to drop one of the staff. It was dusk and we were scarcely one kilometre out of Bondla when we spotted a tiger just 10 metres ahead. Dazzled by the headlights, it paused in t mid-road as we braked. Then it crossed the road leisurely but majestically. What a glorious sight it was. It was as if it just ignored the human presence.

But the next day we weren't as lucky at the Mollem National Park. Apart from spotting a herd of bison at dawn which scampered away before our photographer could " shoot them". That was about all. For two hours, we drove and drove and could not spot even a tail of a monkey, but then that's wildlife watching for you! You win some, you lose some but the fun is going out there are the sylvan surroundings and you can take in nature in copious doses. Sunset Point was another magnificent experience. About 15 km from Mollem and nestling atop the high hills, it takes about an hour of winding rough roads to reach up there. Higher and higher you go up precipitous paths, until you finally get there where after climbing a machan you are a master of all you behold. What a sight it is! A sight for the gods who seem so near by.

Actually, Goa has one national park (Mollem) and six sanctuaries, including the latest ones at Madder and Natravaeli.

That the Central Government is keen on preserving the wildlife sanctuary is an apparent from Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee's speech at the 21st meeting of the Indian Bureau Wildlife on January 22, 2002. We should fully tap the potential in wildlife tourism and, at the same time, take care that it does not have an adverse impact on wildlife tourism and protected areas. Lands falling within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and sanctuaries should be notified as eco-fragile zones..." he said. It surely is a fillip for wildlife in Goa.

Back to our sojourn in the forest. The distance to Dudhsagar is just 12 km but it takes over an hour by car as we pass through the lush evergreen forests and even at midday, the sun finds it hard to pierce through the dense foliage, shades of the Black Forest (no, not the cake) in Germany. They say the Germans love to walk in the forest but I'd opt for driving any day. The Gypsy had to wade through three rivers and we had to walk the last half kilometre on loose pebbles (beware of a twisted ankle!). One should use the right footwear and be as sure- footed as a goat or an ass, take your pick, but once we reached the base it was well worth the effort. It may not have been a bountiful as it was in the 1950s but the 300-foot drop is a sheer delight, to say nothing of the spray that kisses your cheek. We spent about an hour at the base with 100-odd tourists. I believe they have now made it a plastic-free zone.

On our way back from Dudhsagar, we visited Devil's Canyon, as a formation of rocks broken into criss-cross sections and underground passages through which part of the Dudhsagar river flows. The water is two coconut trees deep and therefore quite still, after all don't they say that still waters run deep? Like the Dudhsagar there are gory tales of bodies disappearing and legend has it that the Devil takes them, hence the name.

On the way back is the 13th century Lord Mahadeva temple at Tambi Surla constructed in black basalt. The intricate carving is a joy to behold. But one has to see it separately because this is a different kind of wonder. It should not dilute the Elysian splendour of days and nights in the forest.

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