Sindhudurg, the southernmost district in Maharashtra, covers only 3.8 percent of the total mangrove vegetation in the state. However, with occurrences of some rare and endangered species, it is the richest in terms of its biodiversity.The ‘Swamini’ self-help group, a group of ten individuals led by Shweta Hule, have been organising ‘mangrove safari’ for tourists in the Mandavi creek of Vengurla taluka in Sindhudurg, since 2017.The mangrove safari programme by Swamini has been recognised as a model for community-led conservation through ecotourism and the State Forest Department has made efforts to replicate the model in other parts of coastal Maharashtra. The Mandavi Creek in Vengurla had always been a place that drew wonder from Shweta Sachin Hule. She would gaze at the glistening waters under the clear blue skies and the dense mangroves that spread richly across the creek and tell her family and friends about how it was a shame that not many tourists knew about this area. But at a two-hour-drive away from the tourist-packed Calangute beach in Goa, the Mandavi creek and its neighbouring villages remained largely anonymous on the map. That was until 2017, when Shweta Hule, her husband, and a group of eight other women launched what has popularly come to be known as the ‘Swamini Mangrove Safari’ in Mandavi Creek, Vengurla on the coast of the western state of Maharashtra. Led by Shweta Hule, the senior-most woman of the group, Swamini is a self-help group involved in various income generating activities, with their flagship project being the mangrove safari. The members of the group include Ayesha Hule, Jahnvi Hule, Priyanka Dabholkar, Sai Satardekar, Sneha Khobrekar, Sushila Hule, Gautami Hule, Radhika Lone, and Shweta Hule’s husband, Satish Hule. The group approached the Mangrove Cell of Maharashtra that was working with UNDP India on mainstreaming biodiversity in the region and presented the idea of a mangrove safari. They accepted the proposal and contributed towards securing two boats and life jackets for the SHG to run this programme. Shweta Hule (front) and other members of the Swamini Group near Mandavi Creek, Vengurla. Photo by Alisha Vasudev for UNDP-GEF Sindhudurg Project. Mangrove safari Over the last three years, the group’s story has been the subject of several newspaper articles and a documentary, which have helped increase the mangrove safari’s popularity, attracting tourists from far and wide. The safari involves a ride on a row boat, about one and a half kilometre into the creek, accompanied by not more than two members from Swamini at a time. While one person rows the boat, the other acts as a guide, introducing the tourists to the mangroves and its uses. Apart from the mangroves, the Swamini members are also experts at identifying birds such as egrets, herons, storks, and cormorants among others. “The tourists are often amazed when we take them through the mangroves, helping them identify the different species of flora and fauna in the creek”, Shweta Hule told Mongabay-India. Smooth-coated otters, mudskippers, mangrove crabs, and birds including storks, herons, cormorants and egrets are some of the commonly found species in the area. In the last tourist season, which started in October, but was cut short by the pandemic-induced lockdown in March, the group had made close to Rs 2,00,000 from the mangrove safari activity alone. “Back when I had this idea to run a mangrove safari, all I knew then was that I wanted to take tourists on a boat ride in this creek and show them all the beautiful birds that flock here. I didn’t know much about mangroves,” recalled Hule. Belonging to a fisher family, Hule would walk around the creek during low tide to collect wild mussels and oysters but had never ventured far inside the thick mangrove scrub and hence knew them all by just one name – kaandal, which is the generic local term for mangroves. However, within months, this had changed. Shweta Hule and the other members of the Swamini Group were encouraged by the staff from the Mangrove Cell under the Maharashtra Forest Department and a small team who worked alongside the Cell on a UNDP project funded by the Global Environment Facility, to take up this activity as an alternative livelihood. The project team helped them learn more about the mangroves so that they may in-turn raise awareness among the villagers and the tourists. In a matter of few months, the women members of the Swamini Group had not only learned how to row a boat for the first time in their lives, but they had also learnt to identify the eight species of mangroves that grew in the creek, by their local and scientific names. Every other day, after finishing off their household chores in the morning, they would walk by the creek and try to recollect the names of the mangrove species as they had been taught by the UNDP-GEF Project staff. “Avicennia marina, Avicennia officinalis, Rhizophora mucronate, Excoecaria agallocha, Acanthus ilicifolius, Bruguiera gymnorhiza, Bruguiera cylindrica, and Kandelia candel,” narrates Shweta Hule with confidence, enlisting the eight species of mangroves found in the Mandavi creek.