Camilla and Julian Read are cycling across the world from the UK to New Zealand to fundraise for World Land Trust (WLT) and learn about many natural landscapes along the way, including one of WLT’s projects in India: the beautiful Garo Hills.
Up and up we go, clutching the back of the motorbike for dear life. The mud tracks are deeply grooved from vehicles travelling in the rainy season and have solidified into narrow trenches.
You’d think that after cycling the equivalent of ten Mount Everests, catching a ride up to Nokrek National Park on the back of a motorbike would be a doddle… yet it was terrifying! But this is the terrain that Balsreng and his team battle with to visit conservation areas in the Garo Hills.
“If you think it’s difficult now, you should see these roads in the monsoon,” Balsreng informs us. “It’s sometimes just easier to walk!”
It is worth it. Up the steep mud track, through thick jungle, and at a height of circa 1200m above sea level, we climb further up a narrow iron ladder to view the landscape from above the trees. The view of the Garo Hills is fantastic.
This lush green landscape supports an incredibly rich ecosystem. It spans 2million acres (800,000 hectares) and comprises some 85 species of mammals, 206 species of birds, 62 species of reptiles, 14 species of amphibians and more than 100 fish species.
We listened for the emotive call of the Western Hoolock Gibbon, but only the chirping of birds and deafening shrill of insects met our ears. We would have been lucky- they are considered one of the 25 most endangered primate species in the world. Populations of Western Hoolock Gibbons have declined by almost 90 per cent over the last 30 years due to threats such as hunting for food and medicine, and habitat loss.
This incredible habitat is under increasing pressure from age-old agricultural practices. Many of the hill populations practice slash-and-burn cultivation (known as jhumming), which fragments areas of forest and hinders wildlife movement. It also increases human-wildlife conflict, in particular with elephants, with whom villagers chase away from crossing roads nearby.
To protect this important habitat, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and World Land Trust (WLT) have created the Garo Green Spine Conservation Project. This aims to connect Nokrek National Park with Balpakram National Park to create an uninterrupted habitat corridor for elephants and other species.
The support and knowledge of the local communities in Garo Hills is essential for this to be successful. Our trip took us to the village of Daribokgre, one of many tribal communities that live on the fringes of the Nokrek National Park known as Garos, who refer to themselves primarily as A-chik (which translates to hill people).
Building relationships with remote communities is at the heart of WTI’s conservation mission, and this is where Balsreng’s expertise is so valuable. He speaks the local Garo language and liaises with the local villages, educating them about the importance of conservation and the Green Spine Project.
In addition to education, the project aims to promote sustainable development for the Garo communities. This includes enhancing social development and employment opportunities for villagers; restoring jhummed fallow lands; and WTI are currently piloting fuel efficient stoves to reduce local dependence on the forests for fuel.
The approach is proving successful. Local communities have voluntarily set aside 17 Village Reserve Forests covering over 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) of land for conservation. Walking around, you can see the community’s passion for their local wildlife and determination to protect it in posters of gibbons and elephant murals painted by schoolchildren. Seeing the success of this community owned conservation approach was extremely heartening.
The communities have also started to welcome tourists into their villages as a way of earning additional income. The owners of the Daribokgre Homestay welcomed us with sweet tea and fresh oranges from the hundreds of trees surrounding their property and we chatted happily to the two French backpackers who had trekked up the hill from Tura (a full days walk). We learned to beware of the ‘mother of all citrus’: a tiny orange packed with Vitamin C that tastes like the most sour bitter lemon you can imagine!
We feel so lucky to have spent a day in this special place. If you are travelling to India, it is well worth leaving the dusty cities behind to go and breathe the fresh clean air of the Garo Hills. To quote a poster from the village: ‘Nature is not a place to visit – it is home’. A message we aim to spread as we travel on.
By Camilla Read
Camilla and Julian are travelling across 27 countries by bicycle, and they are aiming to raise funds for WLT through their journey. They have already raised more than £4,000 for wildlife conservation; donations can be made on their JustGiving page and supporters can follow their progress on their website and Instagram.
You can find more information about ways to fundraise for World Land Trust or how to donate to help save threatened habitats here.