Birders flock to Gujarat

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Bird watchers, ornithologists, wildlife photographers, travel writers, tour operators, environmentalists, and researchers from around the world were invited to attend the 2nd Global Bird Watchers’ Conference 2012, which took place at Gandhinagar, in Gujarat state, India.

The event, held between January 19-22, was jointly organized by Gujarat Tourism and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to showcase the spectacular wealth of bird life in the region and to further promote Gujarat’s tourism product as a whole.

Gujarat is fast emerging as an eco-tourism hot spot, and with over 500 species of birds so far recorded in the region, it is considered a world-class bird watching destination. Avi (avian) tourism is a developing market and one that the conference organizers are keen to see mature.

Gujarat rests on the western coast of India and is strategically located between two traditional bird migration routes, one from Central and North Asia to East Africa and another from the Middle East and Europe to peninsular India. The conference was timed to coincide with the winter arrival of tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl drawn to the region’s pristine lakes and lush wetlands. A rich diversity of terrestrial resident birds complement this vast tableau of colorful and exotic fauna.

Gujarat state Tourism Minister, Jaynarayan Vyas, speaking during the inauguration ceremony hosted in the grounds of the Kensville Golf & Country Club near Ahmedabad, said: “[While] the state of Gujarat is promoting the tourism sector to its fullest potential, we must also offer the world the wetlands and sanctuaries that are still not [fully] explored by the birding community, both domestic and global.”

He reminded delegates that bird watching, or birding, is the fastest-growing recreational activity in the United States, and that the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds alone boasts one million members. It’s a specialist outdoor activity that enjoys a huge global following.

“Gujarat ,therefore, is an ideal destination for bird watchers and offers excellent opportunities besides its other cultural and heritage advantages.

“Birding and nature tourism are also compatible with environmental preservation,” he stressed. “[Both] take advantage of natural scenic areas and habitats that attract specific bird species. Promoting bird watching and the region’s natural assets will in turn promote a greater awareness of ecotourism.”

FICCI Gujarat state council representative Sunil Parekh pointed out that this was “the first initiative by any state government to promote a niche tourism segment in India.”

His colleague, Gujurat Principal Secretary (tourism), Vipul Mitra, added: “We are committed to promoting ecotourism. The state is taking initiatives to inculcate a spirit of conservation among the masses.” A more educated and environmentally-aware local population could also help counter poaching and other illegal activities, he underlined.

This year’s initiative follows the 1st Global Bird Watchers’ Conference, held in 2010 at the wetlands of Khijadiya, near Jamnagar. The overwhelming success of that landmark event persuaded Gujarat Tourism and FICCI to repeat the exercise.

The 2012 edition attracted a total of 402 delegates, 95 of them from 38 different countries and 288 from 18 different Indian states.

A two-day, pre-conference field trip program comprised of three separate group tours took delegates and representatives of the travel press to various winter migratory zones throughout Gujarat. These included Villa Kanewal Lake, where the Dalmatian pelican, Eurasian marsh harrier, and purple heron are among the many species attracted to the reservoir, and the Pariyaj Wetlands. The highlight here was a spectacular aerial ballet performed by two pairs of steppe eagles, happy to play up to the rows of telephoto lenses trained skywards.

At Narda Wetlands, a staggering 100 Sarus cranes – the tallest flying birds in the world – were spotted foraging on marshland.

Other itineraries facilitated visits to equally-rewarding birding sites, among them the Thol and Nal Sarovar bird sanctuaries; the Bhavnagar Coastal Wetlands; and the Little Rann of Kutch, a salt flat surrounded by grassland and thorny scrub.

The final day brought together ornithologists, academics, and specialists for a series of plenary sessions that embraced a wide range of subject matter. Among the speakers was Dr. David Harper, Senior Lecturer in ecology and conservation at the University of Leicester, UK, who highlighted the dilemma faced by tourism chiefs in luring more visitors to the region, while safeguarding the integrity of Gujarat’s lakes and wetlands.

Dr. Ted Floyd, Editor of “Birding” magazine, the flagship publication of the American Birding Association, mused upon the evolution of the birding community with his engaging talk, “Global Bird Watching in the 21st Century.”

The session entitled, “Photographing & Documenting Birds,” showcased the portfolios of renowned Indian wildlife photographers Saleel Tambe, Sudhir Shivaram, and Bhaskar Krishnamurthy, with each offering tips on how to take better photographs.

“What we are seeing here is the fruit of the labors of others who led the conservation movement in this region during the 1970s,” remarked Dr. Bharat Jethva, Coordinator of Wetlands International South Asia, the only global NGO dedicated to sustaining and restoring wetlands.

“Gujarat is 20 years ahead in conservation practices and is now emerging as the foremost Indian state for birding.

“The potential is huge, and with proper guidance and the correct infrastructure, we will see more people than ever taking up bird watching,” he added.

The 3rd Global Bird Watchers’ Conference will take place in January 2013, again in Gujarat.