Till very recently, it was impossible to plan a visit to the Mollem national park, a tropical forest region bordering Goa and Karnataka, without well-meaning friends warning you: “Book your taxi in advance. The cab operators there can loot you.” But not any longer. The 100-odd ‘ruffian’ cab drivers are now helpful tourist guides, ferrying them to the scenic Dudhsagar, a waterfall on the border, and even tell you a thing or two about the forest.
"These jeep operators, mainly locals, ferry tourists across to Doodhsagar. They were notorious as taxi mafias because they did not know how to behave with the tourists. The 14-km-long bumpy drive in the national park would often end up unpleasant," Amar Heblekar, range forest officer, said.
Since his posting at this park a year ago, Heblekar decided to turn the park’s disadvantage into an asset by training these jeep drivers on the importance of nature and on how to behave with tourists. "We trained them how to behave. Also, we told them that the forest they grew up in was unknown for the tourists," Heblekar said. "We taught them how to present this wildlife to the guests".
Heblekar’s idea clicked. After two such training camps, the state forest department’s register had no complaints – a first in several years.