Ravindra Singh Tomar
Naturalist and conservationist, Kota, Rajasthan
“Bandh kar, motor bandh kar de,” he whispers to the boatman. Putting his binoculars to his eyes, he lets out a low whistle and whispers to us, “It’s a dusky eagle owl, looking for a nest. First sighting this season!” His excitement is contagious, and we crane our necks to see her, but the bird in question has all too quickly ducked behind large branches. Still, we aren‘t disappointed, as there‘s lots to see here, especially when you‘re with Ravindra Singh Tomar, the only person in Kota who operates boat safaris on the Chambal River.
He’s a naturalist and conservationist, and the forest department has named him the honorary wildlife warden this year. When he stops talking about birds for half a tick, I ask him how he started these safaris. He tells us of how he pooled some money in with friends, bought a boat, and came to the river often.
He reminisces fondly of how he started out as a photographer, and studied the birds that visited the Hadoti area in Rajasthan. He learned to identify resident birds and studied migratory patterns. Later, he shut down his liquor business, got a licence from the forest department and started conducting boat safaris. I ask why and he replies: “If we don’t start saving our environment now, we’ll be left with nothing. All you need to do is create an interest – learn a few (bird) names, start identifying them and create some sort of awareness.” He tells us how this place was finally declared a sanctuary back in the early 1980s. Even so, there used to be a lot of illegal smuggling of green wood, fishing and mining. At the time, the forest department didn’t even own a boat – he and his buddies volunteered to take the forest officials out on the river to catch the baddies. The smugglers‘ costliest possession was the boat they used to transport their stolen goods. So Mr Tomar and the forest department officials would bring the boats to the middle of the river and sink them. “We’d get pelted with stones, but we managed to drown 500 illegal boats,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye.
The forest department only got a boat of its own this year. Still not convinced about the role of the authorities, I enquire about what exactly the government is doing. He believes that we all need to help out; we need to protect our forests and rivers as much as we can. “The forest department cannot manage the entire thing by itself. It’s our responsibility, too,” he says.
A bridge is being built across the river to connect Kota to NH 76, and Mr Tomar and his team got the government to construct it with suspension cables, and ensure that no part of the bridge touched the river. There’s also a Supreme Court (SC) directive according to which certain areas of all national parks will be declared eco-sensitive zones and local committees must decide how much that area can be (from less than 1km to 10km), failing which the SC will impose a 10km ban. That would mean no commercial activities and no thermal plants. Good riddance, I think, but Mr Tomar points out that all the settlements along the river will also have to go, and many locals would lose their homes. He‘s trying to work with the local community to come up a with solution that would help the environment and the people here.
His enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring, as he tells us how he taught his peers about the local wildlife. We learn how he comes here at night with other like-minded people to do a census on the endangered long billed vultures that nest here. Today, they’ve geotagged 150 nests, the largest known colony in Asia. “Our efforts are small, but they make a difference.”