Bollywood music composer Abhishek Ray leads a double life. The musician who has worked on films like Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar and most recently Welcome Back, has one passion that is far removed from the glamour world. Almost eight years ago, somewhere close to the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, Abhishek bought a barren hill and since then he has been building a wildlife reserve on it. It’s called the Sitabani Wildlife Reserve, which Abhishek describes as a “large hill contiguous with the surrounding forest”.
Speaking of how he stumbled upon it, he says, “It was on one of my untamed travels into the forest when I stumbled upon this hill. It was barren and devoid of life because of years of slash and burn agriculture. So when I first set my sight on it eight years ago I immediately liked the area since it was surrounded by undisturbed sal forest, it was mountainous and had a stream.”
And what made him think of turning it into a wildlife reserve? “I had heard a lot of man-animal conflict in that area. There was a lot of antipathy towards animals, because they were destroying the crops. Incidents of tigers and leopards attacking cattle were common. That’s why I thought of acquiring this land and turning it into a place that can be inhabited by wildlife. It was a long, painful process of acquiring the land from multiple families that owned them,” he says.
The next big challenge was to make the barren land inhabitable by wildlife. “The first thing I did was build a water body. My experience had told me that water is like a magnet for animals and fresh water is increasingly getting rare in the forest. I got a pond lining, which prevents the water from seeping into the soil, and gave it a natural look and released water into it. Today it looks like a completely natural green pond inside the forest. You just have to do a little bit and nature does the rest. The animals were drawn to it in no time,” he says.
Nature has been a big draw for Abhishek since he was a teenager. When he was 13, he volunteered at the Ranthambore National Park. On his first assignment, Abhishek had to track predators across 40 square kilometres of forest land. “I was asked to follow my instincts and think like an animal. That’s how it kick-started. Since then it’s been my yearly or six-monthly kind of an addiction to volunteer as a wildlife enthusiast,” he says.
Currently, the Sitabani Wildlife Reserve is home to over 650 species of birds along with tigers, leopards, bears and various other wild animals. Abhishek also has plans of opening the land to tourists in the future.