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Off-Roads And Off-Limits

Off-Roads And Off-Limits

Off-roading may sound like fun, but it could kill fragile ecosystems and species.

In Ladakh, much like other regions, the off-road use issue is not just restricted to trampling. With vehicles comes a retinue of ill effects in the form of air, water and noise pollution and littering.

Until a few years ago, the ecologically fragile lateritic plateau of Kaas, home to rare and endemic floral species, witnessed large scale damage due to uncontrolled tourism. Tourists trampled over plants by walking or driving their vehicles over them. Thankfully, strict regulatory measures by the community and the Forest Department brought some respite to this World Heritage Site. However, there are all-too-many ecologically significant areas across India, which continue to be decimated by irresponsible adventure seekers.

Several impact assessment studies have been conducted in various countries to gauge the impact of off-roading by motorised vehicles on wildlife, and the findings have all been unflattering.  A study conducted in the Prairies Ecosystems of Big Cypress National Preserve (Waddle J.H. et al) showed that ORVs caused displacement of soil, inflicted direct damage to vegetation and even resulted in the spread of invasive species. ORVs have also been cited as one of the major threats to amphibian life in protected natural areas of South Florida. The studies also suggest that ORVs could result in alterations in behaviour and reduce survival or fitness of wildlife populations.

Off-roading has, for instance, recently caught the imagination of thrill seekers, largely through TV advertisements that seek to win customers by appealing to the adrenaline rush that they crave. Though at a nascent stage in India, several car and bike brands are selling vehicles ‘built’ to take the shocks of driving through rough terrain. Called Off-road Vehicles (ORVs) or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), these cars, motorbikes and even cycles promote the concept of driving through areas such as the sand dunes of a desert, rugged slopes of a mountain or through pristine vegetation in jungles.

The repercussions of such insensitive advertising and promotion can destroy valuable biodiversity. Apart from destroying natural vegetation, the tyres of the ORVs physically damage plants and cause soil erosion causing siltation into waterbodies, thus causing damage to both terrestrial and aquatic life. Continual exposure to heavy off-road vehicles impairs the regeneration ability of vegetation and can eventually lead to natural landscape features deteriorating over time.

The off-road use issue is not just restricted to trampling. With vehicles comes a retinue of ill effects in the form of air, water and noise pollution and littering. Disturbance caused to wildlife could lead to anxiety and alteration in natural animal behaviour.

Off-roading vehicles can cause irrversible damage to natural habitats including trampling vegetation, pollution and disturbance to wildlife such as the desert fox in Kutchh. Photo: Samir Madhani

Several tourism and adventure sports groups and organisations in India sell off-roading car and bike trips to some of the most pristine locations in the country such as Leh and Manali in the Himalaya, Rann of Kutchh in Gujarat, Thar desert in Rajasthan, and forests in Goa. Each one of the locations mentioned above is a fragile and irreplaceable ecosystem, which harbours some of the rarest and critically endangered flora and fauna. What makes matters worse is that the more remote the area, the more the oversight.

Sanctuary is not against adventure, but we believe that the ethics of stepping into the fragile world of nature must take precedence over adrenalin-driven excitability. Across the world, and this is not just limited to cars, even off-road cycles and walking trails have the strictest of rules and protocols in place.

Our wildernesses are already burdened with several problems, all man-made, and off-road vehicle use is simply ecologically unsustainable. Automobile brands that produce and sell ORVs in India and overseas must be more sensitive to the issues involved, in the same way as many camera brands have now begun to set high standard bars to guide photographers.

Groups and organisations that organise such off-roading trips need to self-regulate while the trend is still nascent in India. And they should be asked inevitably to stay away from ecologically sensitive areas, or turn their adventure into conservation action, the way that some mountaineers and trekkers (not all) now take pride, not merely in setting a good example by not littering, but by bringing back the trash that others carelessly throw.

Most importantly, the tourists and adventure sports enthusiasts who indulge in these activities must be aware that a few adrenalin-charged moments are not worth the negative impact on our biodiversity.


a) Use the power of social media, other online networking and writing platforms to spread the message.
b) If you yourself are an off-roading enthusiast, indulge in the sport more responsibly. Educate yourself about the ecology of the destinations and avoid ecologically sensitive places. Get your adventure group to do the same and set an example.

Write to the Indian Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) asking them to

* implement strict regulatory measures on ORV use in India
* impose license fee on vehicles identified as off-road vehicles
* ban ORVs from sensitive wilderness areas
* limit the number of ORVs in off-roading hotspots to reduce impact
* conduct impact assessment studies in sensitive zones

Mail to

Shri Vikas Rustagi
Joint Director General,
Niche Tourism, Ministry of Tourism
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Dr. Harsh Vardhan
Minister of Environment,
Forests and Climate Change
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Do cc us on the emails at
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First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXXI Issue 6, June 2019


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