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Birds as an Eco-tourism resource: The Eagle-nest case-study
Dhananjai Mohan, Professor, Wildlife Institute of India.
Arunachal Pradesh is the most bio-diverse Indian state situated in its north-east. The area has the
second highest breeding bird diversity in the world with nearly 570 birds breeding in an area of 250X250
kilometer square which is only second to the Andes. Tucked away on the western boundary of this
remarkable state, a stone's throw from Bhutan, is the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. No this isn’t a
wildlife sanctuary where you would expect large charismatic mammals and tourists making a beeline on
jeep or elephant safaris to get a glimpse of the elusive Tiger or a herd of wild Elephants bathing in a
tropical river. In days of walking you may not see a single mammal species, except for a squirrel or two
or if very lucky may be a Yellow-throated Marten moving through the low bushes in the montane
forests. Sometime you may hear the bark of a barking deer from an impenetrable ravine on the opposite
side of the valley. You would also miss the khaki clad forest personnel unlike a typical Indian sanctuary.
Yet if you wish to visit this sanctuary which in an exceeding short time has gained a spot in the top
birding destinations of the world, you may have to wait for months to get a place in the very basic
accommodation that the sanctuary has to offer. I would not let you guess more about the place and give
you the details you may be longing to know by now.
The Eagle nest sanctuary came into being in the 1989 and its 217 area covers the forests on the
southern slope of the first mountain range of Arunachal Himalayas. The sanctuary starts from an
altitude of about 500m and goes up to about 3250m, all on one slope. There are diverse habitat types
because of the great altitudinal range. Tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forest occurs in the
southern parts of the sanctuary, especially in the river valleys and stream gorges, mainly below 900 m.
Broadleaved subtropical forest dominated by various oak species occurs at 800–1,900 m. Broadleaved
temperate forest dominated by oaks, magnolias and rhododendrons occurs at 1,800-2,800m. Coniferous
temperate forest dominated by Abies spectabilis, A. delavayi and Taxus baccata is found at 2,800–3,200
m. Eaglenest ridge rise to 3,250 metres and is the first major barrier to the monsoon as it moves north
from the plains of Assam. The ridge gets over 3,000 millimetres of rain on the southern slopes and about
1,500 millimetres on the northern slopes. (Choudhury 2003) The northern slope which supports
relatively less wet forest, are the community forests of the Bugun tribal of the state. With an
outstanding diversity of more than 400 species of birds almost all of which are forest birds, it is
surprising that the place was virtually unknown to the world till as late as 2006.
Till 2003, Eaglenest had perhaps less than 10 tourists visiting it in nearly one and a half decade of its
existence. Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury a well known ornithologist from north east India published a
checklist of birds of Eaglenest along with the adjoining Sessa orchid sanctuary in 2003. It was around this
time that an amateur birdwatcher from Pune who was a radio-astronomer by profession, Dr Ramana
Athreya decided to more than just bird-watching here. In his own words
My first visit to Arunachal in 1995 took me to Eaglenest. Birding in the cloud forest of this unknown
sanctuary with an evocative name was sheer enchantment. I returned to Eaglenest in late 2003 as part
of the three year-long Eaglenest Biodiversity Project to inventory the bird, butterfly and reptile
distribution of the area and with vague thoughts (for the distant future) of helping the local Bugun tribe
extract non-timber money out of Eaglenest by setting up a community-based ecotourism venture. But
the Buguns had other priorities - stomachs first, conservation later.
Ramana knew that Eaglenest was the best bet for a successful community-based initiative. The big
advantage that Eaglenest (and western Arunachal) has over other wilderness areas of Arunachal is its
combination of altitudinal range and easy access. Access and good forests are usually antithetical and
Arunachal is no exception, except for Eaglenest. Only five hours separate Eaglenest from the airport at
Guwahati, the travel hub of north-east India. A jeep track cuts through Eaglenest from its base at 100 m
altitude to Eaglenest Pass at 2,800 m. Only the width of a highway divides Eaglenest from the adjacent
sprawling lowlands of the Pakke Tiger Reserve. A mere 125 km drive along this highway brings the visitor
to alpine meadows at 4,500 m in the neighbouring Dirang and Tawang. Furthermore, the famed
Kaziranga is only a three-hour drive from Eaglenest. In contrast, the better-known Namdapha Tiger
Reserve has no jeep tracks in its interior and no paths at all above 1,000 m altitude (Athreya 2005).
The Eaglenest Biodiversity Project was a multifaceted project aimed at securing conservation resources
for Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary through biodiversity inventory and local community participation. It was
funded through the Rufford-Maurice-Laing Foundation (U.K) under their Rufford small grants project
scheme. The immediate and long-term goals proposed in the funding application were as follows:
1. Inventory the birds, butterflies and herpetofauna of Eaglenest
2. Develop a photo-library useful to scientists, wildlife managers and tourists
3. Increase the local and outside awareness of the ecological wealth of EWS
4. Encourage the participation of the local Bugun tribe in research and tourism activities,
thereby engendering in the community a stake in the long-term survival of Eaglenest
The project team included Indi Glow, Nima Tsering, Dorje Raptan, Jetha (all locals) who were
instrumental in developing the eco-tourism and Ishan Agarwal, Pratap Singh, Viral Mistry, Shashank
Dalvi and Dhananjai Mohan (all amateur naturalists) who contributed to biodiversity documentation
voluntarily. Six field visits were made as part of this project between November 2003 and March 2005.
The following outputs were delivered out of the project (Athreya 2006):
Biodiversity documentation resources
1. A preliminary checklist of butterflies, snakes and lizards.
2. A preliminary portfolio of amphibian
3. An updated checklist of birds. 329 species were recorded inside Eaglenest during the survey,
augmenting its list by about 45 species (checklist of 399 species). About 525 species were recorded in all
during the project including the bird tours. The discovery of the project was a species new to science
which has been named Liocichla bugunorum after the Bugun community. The spring, summer and
winter distribution of birds was also qualitatively determined.
4. Audio Library of Birds. Birdsong of over 150 species were recorded which will be of use to scientists
and tourists alike.
5. Establishing distance and altitude markers along the Eaglenest road Altitude and distance markers
were placed at regular intervals along 40 km of the road inside Eaglenest. This resource can be used by
visitors to locate their faunal encounters and thus contribute to building up the database for Eaglenest.
6. Scientific Papers.
7. A photo portfolio on Eaglenest’s biodiversity
Community ecotourism project
8. Organising and promoting birdwatching tours In deference to the wishes of the Bugun community
Ramana advertised for and led a birdwatching tour for 3 foreign tourists in April 2004. It was meant to
showcase the potential of Eaglenest in particular and the area in general. The group spent 10 days at
Eaglenest and another week in Kaziranga and Pakke covering a variety of areas/habitats in north-east
India. 360 species of birds were seen including some very rare and highly sought-after ones like the
Wedge-billed Wren-babbler (Sphenocichla humei), Ward’s Trogon (Harpactes wardi), Beautiful Nuthatch
(Sitta formosa), Rufousnecked Hornbill (Aceros nipalensis), etc apart from many highly endangered
mammals. In March and April 2006 he led two more tours which recorded about 400 species in 17 days.
The most significant part of the exercise was the explicit recognition of the rights of a community to
profit from commercial activities in a protected area in its vicinity. Only local camp staff was employed
and tourists directly paid a community fee to the Bugun community, in addition to the fee charged by
the Forest Department. The amount contributed by each group (in 10 days) was the equivalent of a
labourer’s wage for a year and was used to provide local employment and also subsidise the education
expenses of local students.
Local capacity building
9. Training local people in handling visitors The project camp staff, drawn from the Bugun
village of Singchung, were informally trained in this aspect. Training programme on handling tourists
without damaging the environment – garbage disposal and wood extraction for fuel being the prime
issues were also conducted. Birdwatching among the local people was also encouraged which is
potentially a source of future employment as expert bird guides. Two local youths are now leading bird
10. Widely disseminating the results of our survey through the internet Internet webpages with over
225 photographs and logistical information designed to attract private tour groups and professional tour
agencies have been made publicly available. It has also attracted queries from many ecologists and
museums from around the world. Of all the efforts this has had the greatest public impact. There were 3
visitors to Eaglenest in 2004 and 3 more in 2005. As a direct result of the publicity from my webpages
Eaglenest hosted over 75 visitors including 30 foreigners, in 2006. Today 300-500 tourist visit Eaglenest
annually and a revenue of Rs 5m is generated. About 25 locals get a regular employment through the
The infrastructure includes temporary tented camps which are removed every year after the six month
non-rainy season (Nov- April) gets over. The initial funding for these was obtained from the Ford
The high quality low volume bird based ecotourism is today completely managed by local Bugun tribal
community and provides employment to few locals besides contributing to Bugun community welfare
funds in a sustainable manner without any external support. The community today takes pride in the
activity and also ensures that the forests are well preserved. The initiative has also won major ecotourism award.
Athreya, R. 2005. BIRDING HOTSPOT: Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India.
ASIA 4, December 2005
Athreya, R. 2006. Eaglenest Biodiversity Project − I (2003 – 2006): Conservation resources for Eaglenest
wildlife sanctuary. A report submitted to the Forest Department of the Government of Arunachal
Pradesh, India, and the Rufford-Maurice-Laing Foundation (UK). Kaati Trust, Pune.
Choudhury, A. 2003. Birds of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Sessa Orchid Sanctuary, Arunachal
Pradesh, India. FORKTAIL, Journal of the Oriental Bird Club. UK. 19 (2003): 1-13