INDI GLOW walks past a series of tents.
Adjusting the strap of the binoculars around his neck, he enters a room and points to two framed photographs on the wooden wall. Both show a somewhat younger Indi accepting awards.
“I got the first one in 2009 and the second one in 2013,” he says with a gentle smile.
The awards commend an ecotourism venture that Indi’s been running at a place called Lama Camp for more than a decade.
The camp is located a few kilometers outside Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh
On clear days, the camp, which includes the dining room where Indi now stands, offers a stunning view of the snowcapped Gori Chen peak near the Arunachal-Tibet border. It also provides quick and easy access to hundreds of bird species, including extremely rare ones.
Cashing in on this prime location, Lama Camp has served as a no-frills ecotourism stop for birdwatchers since 2006 and an occasional pit stop for local children attending nature camps in the area.
Overall, the camp is part of Indi’s conservation- and community-friendly business venture, one that “gives him a lot of satisfaction and peace,” says his wife, Nima Glow.
Indi is a revered member of the Bugun indigenous group. The tribe, which has only about 1,500 people, governs part of the land surrounding Eaglenest, relying on tradition rather than formal demarcations to distinguish their land from that of neighbouring tribes.
They have also given up large parts of their land to the Indian Army, which settled in the area around Eaglenest during the India-China war of 1962.
The Buguns are only now in the process of getting compensated for this. Whatever land the Buguns lay claim to today, they divide among each member of the community. And Indi used his piece of land to start his ecotourism venture.
Today, the business is profitable.
“I earn good money, and I don’t have to rely on other jobs. So I don’t worry much,” he says.
The rest of the Buguns also herald the business as a success: it’s creating jobs for the community, and it’s bringing tourists and fame to the previously obscure Bugun lands.
Fifteen years ago, though, when astronomer-turned-ecologist Ramana Athreya first suggested the idea of a community-run bird tourism enterprise around Eaglenest, Indi and other Buguns balked.
People paid money to see beautiful scenery and experience new cultures. Who would pay good money to see a few birds?
“Ramana spoke of something called bird tourism, but we’d never heard of such a thing in our lives,” Indi says.
What was even more puzzling was that before starting the business, Athreya, today an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, Maharashtra state, wanted to spend a couple of years inventorying Eaglenest’s biodiversity.
The latter, Athreya told the Buguns, would draw tourists in and keep the business running in the years to come. In short, for the bird tourism business to work, the Buguns would have to support conservation.
But the only way the tribe was willing to give these ideas a chance was if Athreya first demonstrated to them that bird tourism could be profitable.
Despite having no experience organising bird tours, Athreya agreed. And Indi, despite his concerns, decided to help Athreya with the logistics of the demo tour.
Indi was, after all, known for his keen interest in forestry. He had worked with the Arunachal Pradesh forest department as a forest guard for nearly a decade. Then he had given it up to become a timber contractor, until the Supreme Court of India banned commercial timber felling in 1996.
In fact, the forest around Lama Camp, which appears near-pristine today, was once the site of intense timber logging.
After the ban, Indi continued to dabble in small contractual businesses, from construction to road building, always staying in touch with the forest department.
So, when Athreya had first mentioned his bird tourism plans to senior forest officers in Arunachal Pradesh in 2003, they’d pointed him to Indi.
As it turned out, the duo forged what would be a long, fruitful partnership.
Ups and downs of the pilot tour
By April 2004, Athreya had scrambled together three birding enthusiasts, one each from Britain, Switzerland and the United States, who would embark upon the first-ever, 10-day birding tour in and around Eaglenest.
But trouble began on the very first day of the tour.
The tour group checked into a hotel in Tezpur, in the state of Assam, and was scheduled to leave for Eaglenest early next morning.
But the vehicle that Indi had arranged to transport them was commandeered by the Indian Army — a common occurrence back then.
Indi assured Athreya that he would “figure things out,” and managed to hire a second vehicle within a few hours. That one broke down.
After hiring his third vehicle at Tenga, a town close to the main Bugun village of Singchung, Indi and the driver drove through the night to reach Tezpur early in the morning.
The tourists settled into the car and they left for Eaglenest. But, as luck would have it, the car seized up on the way — and the group hadn’t even started birding yet.
Promising to get them out of the fix, Indi hired a four-wheel-drive vehicle at Tenga that, to everyone’s relief, managed to ferry the tour group to a small camp called Bompu, deep inside the sanctuary.
The relief was short-lived, though.
A few days before the group was to leave, the vehicle’s gearbox malfunctioned.
“When this happened, we were 10 kilometers [6 miles] from Bompu and we had to walk back to Bompu in the dark,” Athreya says.
Thankfully, the tourists, despite spending some of their tour days on foot, had a rewarding birding experience. They spotted more than 185 species, including threatened and near threatened species like the Ward’s trogon (Harpactes wardi), the Sikkim wedge-billed babbler (Stachyris humei) and the beautiful nuthatch (Sitta formosa).
And Indi eventually managed to rent a working vehicle from Tenga, one that survived the journey back to Tezpur.
Indi had saved the pilot tour.
“I think I lucked out when I first met him,” Athreya says.
“Looking back, I can think of a dozen other people it couldn’t have worked with. It’s like they say, ‘Marriages are made in heaven.’ He was the right kind of person, at the right place, and I went there at the right time.”
Building the business
At the end of the demo tour, Athreya handed Indi some INR20,000, around US$400 at the time. That was motivation enough to forge ahead with the business plans.
Indi knew the pilot tour wouldn’t instantly translate to more tourism.
The initial focus, as Athreya had told him, would be on building a knowledge base of the forest and its wildlife. And he went all in.
Over the next two years, Indi, along with a few other people from surrounding Bugun and Monpa indigenous communities, accompanied Athreya and other volunteer naturalists on their bird, amphibian, reptile and butterfly surveys.
Then, in 2006, using grants from funding agencies like the Ford Foundation based in New York, US, Indi
They trained local people as cooks, caretakers and bird guides (Athreya worked as a guide himself whenever he could spare time from his astronomy research projects) while Indi took over the management of the camp.
They spent no money on advertising, depending instead on email marketing and word of mouth to get “genuine” birdwatching enthusiasts. This is a strategy they still follow.
“Typically, we get serious photographers, nature lovers or birdwatchers here,” Indi says. “We don’t encourage campfire, picnics or loud merrymaking, and we don’t book such groups because it disturbs other guests.”
In 2006, Athreya described a new species of bird, the Bugun liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum), a critically endangered bird with no more than 20 known individuals, most of them living around Lama Camp grounds.
The bird was new to both science and the Buguns.
The same year, Indi and Athreya officially launched their bird tourism venture. The Bugun
The duo turned a profit that very first year: they invested around INR1 million (then around US$20,000) and earned almost INR1.7 million.
The following year, they had 250 tourists. And by 2008, the business was earning around INR5 million annually, then around US$100,000. (For comparison, a contractual laborer in the Eaglenest area would then earn about US$1,000 annually on average.)
In 2010, Athreya stepped down to let Indi take over the full running of the business.
And Indi dropped all the contract work he’d been doing on the side to focus completely on the job.
Over the years, he bought more tents and spruced up the camp, making it more comfortable, but not luxurious, for tourists.
In 2008 he built a second, somewhat plusher, campsite a few kilometers away, near the village of Ramalingam, on a small plot of land he owned.
Athreya is now concentrating on his research projects in Eaglenest (while also carrying out astrophysics research in Pune).
With the help of grants from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC’s) Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program and the Nadathur Trust based in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), he trains indigenous youth, both men and women, to take up roles as research staff and ecotourism guides.
He also continues to help people from the surrounding villages become bird guides if they so wish.
“Nowadays, becoming a bird guide is a thing there,” Athreya says.
“We have about 10 guides now, and the nice thing is that some of them freelance across northeast India. Sometimes I get a request: ‘Can I get a binocular and a bird book, I want to become a guide.’ And we give those to them. People sometimes also come, work in the kitchen for a year, and utilize the time to pick up skills as bird guides.”
Both the in-house and freelance bird guides, all from the local communities around Eaglenest, earn up to INR4,000 (US$56) a day for their work, nearly 10 times the average daily wage in the country.
What makes Athreya happy is that the bird tourism business has changed how people think about the forests. They now see that they can use and benefit from the forest without cutting it, Athreya says.
Business for the community
The business will soon enter its 13th year.
Indi runs it privately, but its effects ripple outward in the form of jobs for local people and revenue for other local businesses like vehicle rental services and provision stores.
Tourists visiting Eaglenest for birdwatching also pay a community fee, since they must pass through the Bugun lands before reaching Eaglenest, that goes into Singchung’s general fund for the village council to use as it sees fit.
Moreover, through Bugun Welfare Society, an NGO that he helped create in 2000, Indi helps conduct nature camps for children and training programs for teachers, often spending his own money.
For Indi, who has been a businessman for a large part of his life, the ecotourism venture has been especially good.
“All you need in this business is to be honest and to have integrity,” Indi says. “My staff is the same, and they get tipped handsomely as well. I enjoy this business.”
In fact, private players from outside have attempted to invest in the business and take over its operation. But Indi has maintained that he and the Buguns should retain control of it.
Indi has also become a conservation leader among the Buguns.
In 2013, he teamed up with Umesh Srinivasan, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University who’s been studying
This part of the forest held Singchung’s watershed; if that were to dry up, it could be disastrous for the villages.
With the forest being cut constantly for farming, the danger of landslides was omnipresent. The forest also held rare species like the Bugun liocichla and Bhutan glory butterfly (Bhutanitis lidderdalii).
Moreover, securing a part of their land, over which the Buguns have only de facto ownership, would mark it as their own in perpetuity.
Indi’s efforts bore fruit.
In 2017, the Arunachal Pradesh government declared 17 square kilometers (6.6 square miles) of Bugun land as the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve.
“Indi Babu is a pioneer,” says Sange Norbu Phiang, a school teacher who lives in Singchung and is the secretary of the reserve’s management committee.
“He has led this movement and it is because of him that we are now protecting our forests.”
Rohan Pandit, a naturalist with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), who’s spent several years working in Eaglenest alongside Indi, credits him with bringing conservation to the forefront among the Buguns.
“Only Indi Babu showed some interest when Ramana Athreya first came here, and he’s stood by him throughout,” Pandit says.
“Now a lot of people are benefiting from his tourism business. Many of the Buguns also supported the community reserve because they gained confidence by seeing Indi’s involvement.”
Today, Indi’s business is still making a profit, but its growth has slowed. This doesn’t seem to trouble him, though.
“Right now, we don’t take too many tourists. We have around 120 to 130 foreign tourists and 80 to 90 Indian tourists per year,” Indi says. “We can’t handle [a] rush at the moment, and it’s not good also.”
Athreya, however, thinks the business has potential to grow considerably.
“The tourism business hasn’t changed much since 2010,” he says. “I think it did better than I had a right to expect, and it did worse than I had hoped. I had hoped it would increase a lot more.”
Overall, though, conservation in Eaglenest has been a success story, Athreya adds, “because all the stakeholders contributed to it and appreciated and accommodated the role of others — the Buguns, the Arunachal Pradesh forest department, NGOs and researchers.”
Now, building on Indi’s birding venture, Athreya hopes to extend tourism to other parts of the Buguns’ community lands and villages, and to expand tourism activities beyond birdwatching.
He anticipates this will generate at least five times the current revenue, the profits of which (around 20 percent, he thinks) will be divided between the Buguns and conservation activities in the community reserve.
The money and opportunities aside, the Bugun liocichla and the bird tourism enterprise elicits a feeling of pride among the Buguns.
“Today our Bugun community’s name has spread all over the world, and we feel very encouraged by that,” Phiang says. “Because of this a few of us are also trying to do our bit to save the forests and our river.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay and is part of a four-part series
on the indigenous groups living around Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, India.