(With inputs from Praveen Bhargav and Ramki Sreenivasan)
Merely visiting a wildlife reserve or being a wildlife photographer does nothing to save wildlife. In fact, uncontrolled visitation by tourists and ‘nature lovers’ is leading to the degradation of reserves and the ‘wilderness experience’ that one craves. But we can offset the impact of our visits (somewhat) by becoming conservation watchdogs.
The number of people visiting wildlife reserves for recreation is increasing rapidly, thanks largely to an upwardly mobile middle class with a penchant for watching animal channels on TV and with a disposal income to spend. There is also a growing tribe of well-paid young professionals who feel the desperate need to stretch their legs and ‘recharge their batteries’ on weekends after being cooped up in offices all week. Many possess expensive cameras and lenses, which provide additional motivation to visit wildlife reserves on a regular basis.
On one hand, this growing interest may be taken as a good sign, because, according to conventional wisdom, people will protect what they love. But the question that we must ask today is, are we ‘loving’ our wildlife to death with our visits? What is the impact of wildlife tourism on the wildlife that we profess to love? What benefit accrues to nature from the visits of thousands of ‘nature lovers’? Can one find a way to commune with nature without being a cause of more destruction? Do we really care?
Many people with a conscience are grappling with these questions, and we hope that this article will provide some answers. While it may be unrealistic to ask people to avoid trips to the jungle, every person who enjoys the privilege of entering a wildlife reserve should ask themselves these overarching questions: How can I meaningfully offset the impact of my visits? How can I do more good than harm?
Some obvious and not so obvious impacts of wildlife tourism
- There are now scores of resorts around every popular wildlife reserve in the country, to cater to the unending number of urban tourist/photographer/nature lover. Many of these have come up in the buffer areas surrounding reserves; some are even bang in the middle of important animal movement routes or migration corridors. To protect their property and their guests, these resorts often have trenches or electrified fences around them, thus preventing the traditional movement of wildlife in these areas.
- Since greed rather than sustainability appears to the national motto, most resorts continue to add rooms and beds without concern for the carrying capacity of the fragile environment they sit on.
- They draw enormous quantities of ground water for their needs, depleting underground aquifers. Many buy firewood that is illegally cut from the same forest, which is used for cooking, to heat water for guests and to provide ‘campfires’ in the evenings.
- Most don’t have an environmentally friendly garbage disposal system. Raw sewage from toilets is often let into the nearest stream or nallah. Water and liquor bottles are usually dumped into pits dug in the nearby forest.
- To maximize profits, noisy diesel vehicles are used for ‘safaris’. Since these vehicles ply only in the forest, they are rarely, if ever, checked for pollution levels.
- No orientation is given to guests about dos and don’ts before jungle trips. Drivers and guides are not trained, and lack discipline. Rather than correct erring tourists, they simply ignore those who shout and scream or throw litter. Worse, many provoke animals such as elephants by driving up to them and revving their engines to provoke a charge. For this ‘thrill’ the grateful but ignorant guests reward them with tips, reinforcing these horrific habits.
- A few resorts pay lip service to responsible tourism by keeping a small leaflet in each room with dos and don’ts printed in microscopic lettering.
The katcha mud roads in our popular wildlife reserves are usually more smooth and comfortable than most average city roads. If they weren’t this comfortable, perhaps many casual visitors, who don’t have much interest in nature but are just there for an ‘outing’, would not wish to go on safaris (or they might at least avoid repeated trips). Thanks to these comfy roads, most people get the feeling that they are in an open zoo rather than in a wildlife reserve.
They therefore tend to behave like zoo visitors. They talk loudly, chatter constantly and generally make as much noise as possible because no one has told them how to behave in a wildlife reserve. The smooth roads encourage speeding by resort drivers, who rush around the park in an attempt to show the guests as much wildlife as possible to get more tips. Many animals including big cats have been injured or killed by speeding vehicles and the disturbance they create to the wildlife and to genuine nature lovers is considerable.
Since these mud roads get damaged easily during monsoons, the Forest Department usually digs vast quantities of soil from the forest to re-do the roads every year, creating extensive habitat destruction. In many parks, one can see large craters right beside the road from where mud has been taken over the years. In one famous Tiger Reserve, the topsoil from its meadows was being scraped to remake roads. Since it can take 500 years for one inch of topsoil to form naturally, the fertility loss to the forest can well be imagined.
Other ‘management’ interventions in the name of tourism:
Every year more roads are made in the name of tourism. Many parks have the habit of clearing a wide swathe of forest along the roads, which are called ‘viewlines’, to ostensibly make wildlife more visible to tourists. Initially, the grass that comes up in these openings does attract animals. But within no time, invasive weeds like Lantana, Parthenium and Eupatorium take over and choke the viewlines and become a fire hazard.
What can we do?
Although we may not feel responsible for all these problems, we are very much a reason for their prevalence. So how do we offset at least some of the negative impact of our visits? There are two ways:
- Be a proactive watchdog
- Or minimize your impact by adopting some simple measures
Photograph nature by all means, but look beyond the beauty. It is extremely important that we document the ugliness and destruction as well. Photograph and make a note of any destructive or illegal activities you see during your trips to the forest and send them to Conservation India with specific details such as exact location, date and time. We will upload these in our gallery of conservation pictures. If you do not wish to be identified, we will ensure that your name is withheld.
Some examples for photo documentation:
- Livestock grazing. This is prohibited in National Parks and in the Core Areas of Tiger Reserves, but continues in many parks due to lack of enforcement.
- Tree felling or lopping of branches. In fact, even removal of dead or dying trees, grass etc., from protected areas – even by the Forest Department – is prohibited under a Supreme Court Order.
- People carrying firewood.
- Poaching or evidence of poaching – snares, traps, etc.
- Any construction, digging, presence of earth-moving equipment, new roads, etc. These may not all be illegal, but photograph it anyway.
- Irresponsible tourism.
- Anything else you feel should not be happening in a park. When in doubt, photograph it!
Reporting violations and making formal complaints
Even though you may not normally report or complain about any problems you see, and your driver / guide / resort manager might dissuade you, make it a point to formally complain about any violations seen before you head back home. Please note, ‘passing on information’ and ‘making a complaint’ are two different things. The former need not be taken seriously. You can visit the local forest office (typically the office of the Range Forest Officer) and hand over your complaint to the senior-most officer present. Photograph the letter for your records since you might not have access to a scanner (send us a copy). Also, make a more elaborate complaint to higher authorities (such as the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State) once you return home, attaching some relevant supporting images.
Also, discuss the issue(s) with any active local NGO(s).
Don’t want to be that proactive? Then, at least follow these simple guidelines.
- Do not plan parties or bashes at parks / resorts as this creates unnecessary disturbance. Discourage others from doing so also.
- Engage with local NGOs who work on park issues and try and understand how you can contribute.
- When inside the park follow all rules – stay on designated routes, don’t get-off safari vehicles and do not speed. Make it a point to complain about any violations of park rules by others to the authorities.
- Make it very clear to your guide and driver before your first ride that you will not tolerate rash driving or harassment of animals. Maintain a considerate distance from wild animals. Do not chase or rush behind them. Do not step or drive off the path after animals. Do not stress wild animals or disturb them. Withdraw if you see any signs of that they are agitated by your presence.
- Never, ever, feed wild animals including monkeys.
- Do not go on night safaris. Refuse even if the resort offers to take you. In almost all parks, night driving is a banned, punishable offence.
- Check if the resort you are staying at serves wild meat. Shockingly, some do. Enquire about the possibility and collect enough evidence before you complain to local authorities and alert CI.
- Check about the source of fuel of your resort’s kitchen – is firewood being collected from the park?
- Ensure that your resort has all the necessary permits in running a wildlife resort and operating jungle treks / safaris. Please note that, without this, you can be in serious trouble for illegally entering protected areas even if your resort has escorted you into the forest.
- Understand from the resort management how they manage sewage and garbage. Do they handle / dispose of them responsibly, or do they just dump them in the nearby stream?
- Use all resources in the resort carefully and frugally – especially water. Try and carry your own drinking water so you generate far less plastic.
- Don’t be obsessed with tigers and leopards in the jungle – enjoy the rest of nature.
- Do not litter our parks. Do keep your eyes open for, and pick up others’ garbage (especially plastic) if it is lying on your route inside the park
- However, don’t pick up anything natural that belongs in the park. Picking up feathers, bones, antlers, driftwood, pebbles, stones etc. could be potentially illegal.
- Don’t pick any live animals like pups, cubs, calves, etc. assuming they are abandoned.
- Do not smoke in the forest. Beware of any combustible material that you could leave behind thus causing a fire. Do not carry any material that could be a fire hazard
- Learn about your destination, its offerings, its conservation issues etc. before getting there, so that you are an informed tourist.
These are just indicative guidelines. If you can think of anything else that should be on this list, please let us know and we will include them if appropriate. Of course, it goes without saying that, when in the forest, it is best to wear dull clothing and maintain silence. Let’s make our wildlife reserves the temples of peace they should be.