When you think of Goa, only beaches come to mind. But did you know that the tiny state has six sanctuaries spread out over 750 sq km of protected forests?
Of all these, the Bondla Sanctuary is the friendliest. At 8 sq km, its size is not intimidating. Although it is an outcrop of the Western Ghats, the sanctuary stands isolated. In fact, it's an island of hillocks surrounded by valleys on all eight sides.
Since it's a moist, deciduous forest, the vegetation is sparse. Hence, it's easier to spot wild animals lurking in the bushes. The aesthetically designed cottages merge beautifully with the forest, making it warm and inviting.
Bondla was once a hunter's paradise. But after Dayanand Bandodkar, a hunter-turned-conservationist, took over as the first Chief Minister of Goa in 1969, he actively encouraged eco-tourism. The philosophy behind eco-tourism as it is practised here is interesting: Increase tourism to reduce poaching. The constant presence of tourists and vehicles is likely to deter poachers who operate in isolated forests.
Bondla is a birdwatcher's paradise. We saw six flamebacked woodpeckers that came to roost in the hollow trunk of a bottle palm; the ruby-throated yellow bulbul that is the state bird of Goa; and a dozen hornbills that flew overhead and shook the treetops with the flapping of their gigantic wings.
Later, we met Paresh Porob, the Range Officer of Bondla, who has earned himself the sobriquet of 'Ranger in Danger', for his courageous stand against the jungle mafia. He took us to his home and introduced us to a baby owlet that he had recently rescued. It gave us all a welcome peck, mistaking our fingers for food. Paresh told us that he gets up every three hours at night to feed the baby, since owls sleep through the day and stay awake at night!
The next day, we trekked to the watchtower for a bird's eye view of the entire sanctuary. On the way, we came across a beautiful nest made of moss from which a bird flew away, and sat on a faraway branch. We learned that it was the red-throated flycatcher. This was only the third time that it had been sighted in Goa.
Later that day, we came across a large herd of spotted deer. Paresh pointed out that this increase in numbers was a cause of concern. An increase in the number of spotted deer meant the number of predators was decreasing. Also, since the spotted deer polish off the entire forest floor, there's little left for the smaller species, such as the barking deer and the mouse deer. Hence, they are dwindling.
En route to our next destination, we discovered vast, 'unprotected' forests where mining was going on in full swing. The soft, red soil from these open mines had covered the treetops of many forests like a shroud. I wondered - despite safe havens like Bondla, was Goa digging its own grave?