A haven for bird watchers, an island off the coast of Wales, sets the example for nature tourism done responsibly, offering many a lesson for India.

I have had the fortune to see Sven in the wild. Yes, I am referring to Sven from the film Happy Feet, the Atlantic puffin that was mistaken for a penguin. That charming clumsy little bird with an orange beak and webbed feet giving it an almost clown-like gait as it dashes in and out of its burrow. Skomer Island off the coast of Wales offers the opportunity to get close to these birds while demonstrating a unique model of nature tourism.

A charming five-hour train journey away from the bustle of London that chugs along the Welsh coast will get you into the county of Pembrokeshire, designated as a national park. Pembrokeshire is famed for its rugged cliffs and sandy beaches with Skomer Island just a 20-minute boat ride away.

While my aim was to travel all the way to see the charming clowns in their natural habitat, the experience made me draw comparisons with the way we practice nature tourism in India. In India, an entire generation has grown up on the concept of nature tourism as sitting in gas-guzzling jeeps hurtling through the forest to catch that one glimpse of the tiger and, of course, returning horribly disappointed when they didn’t.

Skomer offers another alternative. On the island, the onus is on the tourist to behave. Nature trails are carefully marked out and if you end up stepping outside of the ropeways, you may just end up crushing the eggs or nests of the hundreds of ground-nesting birds that come here. No humans live on Skomer that’s less than 3 sq. km in size; the entire island is like a huge chunk of Swiss cheese perforated with holes playing host to colonies of ground-nesting birds. There are two wildlife wardens who give a quick briefing about the ecology of the island as soon as the boat arrives. The number of tourists visiting each day is strictly controlled to ensure there is minimal disturbance to wildlife.

Puffins are not the only birds here. Skomer is probably the most important breeding site for Manx shearwaters in the world, with an estimated population of 165,000 pairs. These birds migrate to southern Brazil and Argentina during winter, a journey that’s almost 11,300km. Other birds present in large numbers are guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and the big great black-backed gulls. In summer, grey seals and harbour porpoises can also be seen around the blue waters.

The entire walk around Skomer can be done in less than two hours. If the clownish puffins are what interest you, then head straight to their burrows. The walking trail enables you to get at eye level with the birds. Tourists are less than a foot away from their burrows and yet no one shrieks or tries to tease the birds. The tourists walk through the maze of burrows quietly taking pictures and moving on.

There is also an ongoing study to see if even this minimal invasion of privacy affects the birds’ breeding behaviour or not.

Come April, the puffins are engaged in a frenetic activity of nest-building. Others choose the vantage point of the high cliff and dash down into the sea as the gulls and razorbills nesting along the rocky cliffs cry out in a chorus. The favourite food of the puffins is small species of sea fish or sand eel that the parents catch by diving into the waters. Both parents bring food to the chicks. Puffins mate for life, spending six months out at sea and returning to the island in March or April to lay eggs. By the end of July, the newly-hatched chicks are ready to leave the island.

I watch for over an hour as the puffins come out of their holes with grass in their bright orange beaks, then rush back in. To the delight of the young children watching these birds with us, the puffin has good washroom habits. One bird comes out in reverse gear, shakes its tail feathers and squirts out a yellow streak of poop, after going back into its home. The children clap in delight, it’s like they have front row seats to the puffins’ eccentricities. And that’s what makes the Skomer experience so unique. You don’t have to strain your binoculars to watch wildlife or observe their behaviour.

Skomer sets a fine example of being nature’s paradise and managing its tourists well, unlike other parts of the world where wild animals often get disturbed from the swell of people. I think of places in India where this model could be replicated, especially places like the Kaas plateau in Maharashtra or the wetlands of Ladakh where tourists tread everywhere, often destroying all that in nature they have come so far to admire. As the rain pelts down on us, it’s a happy boat of tourists around us that leaves the island by the afternoon. Everyone is soaked, but on a high, having come this close to nature.

Bahar Dutt is environment editor, NewsX TV station and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World

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