When Dorjee Bachung first saw the snake, he thought it was going to fall on his head. “I was so scared, I covered my head before remembering it was not real,” he says. But for the barking deer, the gaur, and the elephant, he was more prepared.
Bachung, a Class 12 student, lives in Singchung village, which abuts the 217-sqkm Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Yet, it was only through a Virtual Reality headset last October at the nature education centre located at the entrance of the sanctuary that the 18-year-old saw many of his four-legged neighbours — a frog, a red panda and a trumpeting elephant. Since then, Bachung has visited the centre a couple of times, plunging himself into the deep, dark forests of Arunachal Pradesh, surrounded by chirruping birds, croaking frogs and hissing snakes, “Sometimes, I heard them before I saw them. It was exciting,” says Bachung, who wants to be a wildlife photographer.
A unique form of nature education — complete with Virtual Reality headsets — is now being imparted in Arunachal Pradesh, where youth like Bachung can connect to “wildlife in their backyard” in a way they had never imagined before. Since last year, Nature Education Centres at the Pakke Tiger Reserve in East Kameng district and Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in West Kameng district house the ‘Arunachal Virtual Reality Archive’, a project conceptualised by Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer Ram Alluri, in collaboration with the Arunachal Pradesh forest department, and funded by the the National Geographic Society.
For nine months, Alluri and his team — comprising forest rangers, filmmakers, and a field biologist — journeyed through Arunachal Pradesh, filming its biodiversity in real time, using technologies like 360 degree video and virtual reality. “Despite living just outside the boundaries of these reserves, most of these kids had not entered the forest,” said Alluri, “We wanted the state’s indigenous youth to connect to wildlife, approach nature education in a way that has not been attempted in India before.”
But it was far from easy, and in Alluri’s words, “much more than just setting up camera traps and coming back later.” “Unlike traditional video cameras, where you can zoom in, these cameras require species you film to be within a few feet,” said Alluri, who is a National Geographic Explorer. Many times, especially when filming big mammals like tigers and elephants, the team would build platforms on trees, and stay overnight. “We would set up our cameras on the ground, climb onto our tree platforms, hide ourselves as well as we could and wait,” said Alluri, “The idea was to restrict our movement and disturb the animals as little as possible.”
The result is an archive of a plethora of species — both big and small. “We didn’t see this expedition as a journey to film any one particular species. The virtual experience had to be a true representation of the diversity that you find here,” said Alluri. For example, one of the most exciting captures for the team was the Bompu Litter frog, a species endemic to the region, which had not been sighted for nearly a decade. According to Nandini Velho, conservationist and wildlife scientist, who worked as a field biologist on the project, such discoveries and re-discoveries were “just the tip of the iceberg”. “In terms of biodiversity, Arunachal Pradesh is second only to the Andes,” she said, “We often hear references to Amazon, but these forests are equally valuable to India.”
Velho said that their research and interaction with locals revealed that most children living around the protected area did not really learn about their protected area. “More than 70 per cent of the children from the schools nearby (a radius of 8 km around) had not been to the protected area or heard about it,” said Velho, who spends her time between Goa and Arunachal Pradesh.
Velho’s work involved interacting with the children, and refining the videos based on what they wanted. ”The range of experiences were quite diverse. Our expectation was they would only want to see tigers and elephants. But some of them even said they wanted to know what the forest sounds like,” she said, “So we replaced narrations with natural sounds.”
At the centres — which are open to tourists — kids can explore the archive, divided into different pockets of the forest. “We requested them to make videos based on certain specified locations,” said Millo Tasser, former DFO, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, who is now posted as Deputy Conservator of Forests in Itanagar. “For example, now we have footage from Pirila Top, the only part of Eaglenest, which receives snowfall, and the watering holes at Khellong. These are places many don’t know even exist.”
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