Another Step Towards Eco-Tourism

Another Step Towards Eco-Tourism

Over the years the way I sight wildlife in the dark has evolved. In the early 2000's I employed flashlights of varying power to observe wildlife in the dark - a low powered light with a wide beam to spot eyes in the bush, followed by a more focused flashlight to then observe the animal once it has been sighted. For nearly a decade and a half, this process had remained unchanged - the only advancement being the technology of the flashlights changing from filament-bulbs to white-light emitting LEDs. This technique was self-devised to a large extent for lack of knowledge and the use of internet not widespread in those days, and worked pretty well for my purposes. 

However it posed 1 problem: it harms wildlife, as it not only disturbs their activities, but also momentarily inhibits their night-time eyesight adaptation. In recent years, with more and more awareness on eco-tourism and conservation efforts, I too have changed my methods for the better. A little over 3 years ago I switched to infrared based near-night-vision cameras. 

Such devices have a low resolution image sensor with the infrared (IR) filter removed for maximum sensitivity to ambient light. Also, they have a built in infrared illuminator which emits light in the range of 850-940 nm wavelength, invisible to the naked eye but easily picked up by the said sensors. I do not claim this to be complete night vision because these are simple devices that do not match the required industry standards of being certified as night vision - and for good reason - as per Indian laws, Night Vision devices can only be sold to and used by the Military, and are not for civilian use. 

The use of such devices in wildlife conservation efforts is not new. The authorities have been known to employ IR based trail cameras for various studies and census activities for several years now. These cameras have a motion sensor, tens of IR LEDs and some in-built memory. They can be strapped to a tree or pegged into the ground, and any movement in its monitored range activates the imaging/ video-capture. Some variants have a time-lapse mechanism instead of motion-sensing, capturing few seconds of video at regular intervals until either the memory or batteries are exhausted. By strategically placing such cameras alongside watering holes and popular foot paths used by animals, invaluable information and insights have now become available to the forest department which can further the cause of their protection and conservation. 

In any case, equipped with my simple version of such a camera I now see a vast difference in my safari drives and wildlife sighting experiences. As the animals are not disturbed by IR lights, they carry on about their business instead of hurrying away into the bush upon being sighted. Also, with flashlights, it's one thing to observe the happenings but quite another to try and capture it on film. DSLRs and handheld video recorders are no good in the dark, for they rely on camera flash which has limited range as well as picks up dust/ mist in the air to form blotches on the photos. Not anymore - one now has the option of capturing the moments in monochrome video. It's still better than no video altogether, so it's a win-win for both observer and game. Moreover, if the right device is selected, one needn't worry about power supply. My current camera is powered by simple AA batteries - I prefer these over rechargeable cameras or those powered by rechargeable batteries, because it means that one can carry extra batteries and swap them at a moment's notice. I now also carry a separate IR flashlight just in case the beam from the camera doesn't cover enough ground - and usage of such additional IR flashlights can be seen in some of the videos posted below. 

I must clarify that all activities mentioned above are legitimate and do not violate any laws - neither the letter nor its spirit. The past decades did not have any time-based ban on vehicular traffic and usage of flashlights, so said activities were permitted and I even remember driving around the forests at 1-2 AM (in fact, my first tiger sighting in the wild was ~1:30 AM. To know more read my blog: Bagh The Tiger). With laws introduced in recent years imposing a time limit on vehicular movements, I have also adhered to them by limiting my activities to prescribed timings, and use of near-night vision device also eliminates the need for a search light. 

Restricting my movements past such timings has also brought about a change in my selection of accommodation - Earlier not much thought went into the location and surroundings of the lodges/ resorts I chose, because majority of the day and night was spent on safari drives. Now I'm particular about selecting lodges or guesthouses that are secluded, away from the town, and offer a view into the forest so I can silently observe from outside my room through the night, after returning to the lodgings from the last permitted drive for the day. The hosts at such places are also eco-sensitive, and discourage any harmful activities such as lighting a campfire, playing of loud music, making noise, littering, usage of plastics as so on. This greatly helps eco-tourism efforts as it not only maintains the sanctity of the immediate surroundings but also creates awareness among the guests who come from far and wide and belonging to all walks of life.

With this change in selection of where I am put up for the night, another accessory now gains significance: Binoculars! While popularly binoculars are limited to day-time usage, if the right gear is selected they can truly give you an almost surreal experience in the dark, for as counter-intuitive as it may seem, a good pair of binoculars can let you see clearly in low light conditions as well!  Astronomical binoculars (binoculars used in astronomy/ stargazing) have coated optics, large objective lens and are precision-made to ensure excellent light gathering capacity and sharp imaging, as these are intended for use in the dark skies and offer contrast viewing of stars and other celestial objects against a dark sky. It is this same set of properties that proves to be greatly beneficial in an unexpected alternate domain - wildlife viewing at night! Of course, some ambient light is necessary for binoculars to work, but often a moon-lit night or even slight natural light in the region is sufficient for our purposes. One must comprehend that we are comparing performance of binoculars in the dark to that of our naked eye under the same conditions, and not to other devices such as infrared/ thermal imaging.

While the term "eco tourism" encompasses a wide range of topics such as protection and conservation of wildife, partnering with locals/ natives/ tribals and their upliftment, reducing human-animal conflicts, ethical photography, responsible behavior while in the wild, and several other areas, through this blog I have tried to cover just a small subset of topics, and also provided examples of how in our own way we can contribute to the conservation efforts - stop using bright search lights, adhering to regulations and time restrictions, following of simple rules and guidelines such as avoiding littering, bonfires, noise and so on. At the same time, being a passionate wildlife enthusiast myself, I can guaranty that this does not mean you have to compromise on your experiences- as is evident from my mention on the selection of right stay and use of IR cameras and low-light binoculars.

(a herd of elephants to our left and barely a few feet away were invisible to us until revealed by the IR camera!) 

(This was taken a little before midnight)

(The different beam you see is from a separate IR LED flashlight having a different wavelength, whereas the general monochrome part of the video is the camera's default, evenly distributed IR light)

Do check out my youtube channel for exciting wildlife sightings and moments captured: TheTigerCalls Youtube Channel

Update: As I have accumulated an arsenal of equipment from binoculars to scopes and the near-night vision devices over the years, on popular demand I have started lending the gear to folks eager to try them during their visits to wildlife sanctuaries when it is not being used by me. With this I wish other people can relish wildlife, and also strive to create awareness about the importance of practicing responsible eco-tourism. Full disclosure: this equipment is expensive so to ensure it is handled correctly and not misused, I may charge some nominal rent/ caution deposit at my discretion.


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