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Wild Ambitions – Making tourism work for wildlife

Wild Ambitions – Making tourism work for wildlife

Wildlife tourism is a double-edged sword, capable of consuming the very destinations it markets. The tourism industry must change drastically from within from being mere users to protectors, opines Hashim Tyabji.

One of the first – and certainly one of the most curious – instructions of the recently-created National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is the one directing state forest departments and national park anagements to funnel wildlife tourism out of the parks and into the buffer zone – revealing a certain innocence about the reality of buffer zones – more known for cattle densities than wildlife populations! More disturbingly, it reflects the wilful denial of reality – wildlife tourism is here to stay. You only need to visit any one of India’s dozen or so well-known parks or sanctuaries to understand this stark fact. In the face of the burgeoning numbers of lodges, camps and resorts thickly clustered around the edges of Corbett, Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Mudumalai, Bandipur, Kaziranga, Nagarahole, Bharatpur, Gir and others, the need of the hour is not to waste time in futile – almost petulant – attempts to turn back the clock, but to recognise the permanent presence of a powerful factor at play in the wildlife and conservation arena and to create partnerships so as to manage this enterprise and harness its enormous potential for good, while mitigating its excesses.

A double-edged sword

As with any activity, wildlife tourism is a double-edged sword, capable of consuming the very resource it markets – the wilderness. Every additional tourist, every new camp or lodge reduces, to a greater or lesser degree that sense of ‘wildness’ that, along with wildlife, is the essential product that the business purveys. This is inevitable simply because increased urban facilities by definition dilute the wilderness. And in the Indian context – as a consequence of haphazard planning and management – the growth of wildlife tourism has all too often, drastically and unmindfully, reduced the quality of that very “wilderness” that surely must be the industry’s most precious resource. Every single ‘tiger’ park offers innumerable examples of this problem. But for me, perhaps the most glaringly offensive example is what has happened to Corbett. Visiting Gairal on the banks of the Ramganga as a youngster was magical – wild, beautiful, peaceful. Today, the accommodation has multiplied and gaggles of noisy visitors – far exceeding the official capacity – regularly turn this beautiful place into a noisy mela. Even the horror of the Dhikala encampment pales before this desecration. And these sins have not been perpetrated by evil private sector profiteers but by the park management – the very authority that ought to be preventing this and indeed a representative of the very same forest department that in other areas appears to view wildlife tourism as a more potent threat than even the poaching syndicates!

The other major problem with wildlife tourism is the pressure it exerts on local resources. When I first ventured into the jungles as a young naturalist guide in Nepal 30 years ago, Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan was by far the finest wildlife lodge on the subcontinent. Indeed, the industry in India was barely even a blip on the tourism horizon. By its own lights, Tiger Tops was a responsible organisation deeply involved in the protection and conservation of the national park. Yet, every time one went for a nature walk into the jungle, the forest echoed with the sound of axes cutting dead wood for staff and guest kitchens and the several camp fires that were lit within the complex. The daily wage labour recruited for this job came from villages just beyond the park boundaries where every bit of wood had long since disappeared. And here they were, gathering precious firewood from within the park for tourists that they themselves dare not ‘steal’ for their families. Of course, on the flip side – and the reason they didn’t resent this injustice – was that the tourists provided them with work. Neatly encapsulated within this tale is the entire gamut of contradictions, challenges and opportunities that wildlife tourism represents.


©Sanctuary/Jayanth SharmaBy the mid-1980s, I had moved permanently to Bandhavgarh. By this time somewhat more aware and sensitised to the issues surrounding tourism – it had become apparent by the late-’80s that tourism in parks needed to be regulated so as to assure the quality of the wildlife experience on the one hand, while adding value to the local economy on the other. How to achieve the latter goal however, was as unclear then as it is now. Countless articles, letters, meetings and representations to the government later, nothing had changed. The authorities, inherently anti-tourism and hampered perhaps by the thickets of revenue and forest laws that they would have to hack their way through to bring order to the building spree simply ignored the burgeoning problem. Every passing year, the rush to jump on the tiger bandwagon manifested itself in a thickening crowd of lodges and camps occupying all the open spaces around the Tala gate of Bandhavgarh. Bandhavgarh was being swamped by the same tide that had swept over Ranthambhore, Kanha and Corbett. For us ‘old timers’ who had watched our quiet, beautiful parks overwhelmed by crowds of jeeps and tourists, it was hard to adjust. I remember a few years ago when my two sons, who had both seen their tigers before their first birthdays, took one look at the noisy, dust-engulfed crowd of jeeps around a tiger and promptly voted to head in the opposite direction – tiger or no tiger!

The allure of tourism

For all that, any dispassionate assessment of the impact of tourism throws up some surprising truths. One of the most emotive charges against tourism, for instance, is that it harms wildlife. If ever there is a charge without foundation, it is this. The bald fact is that every single park where tourism flourishes has seen prospering wildlife populations. The density of tigers in the main tourism zone of Bandhavgarh is far higher now than it was 20 years ago. The areas of Ranthambhore where tiger populations have survived the onslaught of poaching has always been in the tourism zone. No doubt tourism follows wildlife but equally wildlife is safer where there is tourism. And not just because of the vigilance of tourists and guides, but because of the increased attention that tourism-friendly parks naturally receive from press, officials, politicians and the general public. There is enough anecdotal evidence to support this assertion and here is another example from Pench. About 12 years ago when Ullas Karanth had done his camera capture/re-capture survey in Pench, he had commented on the very high prey densities supporting low tiger populations – an obvious indicator of selective poaching of tigers. When my partners and I decided to set up our wildlife lodge – Bagh Van – in Pench, two things were obvious. One: that the animals were very jittery and two: that tigers were both thinner on the ground than expected and hard to see. Indeed, we were categorically informed that we had blundered. Six years on and Pench is a success story. The wildlife sightings are as good as in any other famous park and the tiger population flourishing – a testimony both to the efficacy of the park management and the restorative effects of tourism.

Winning community support

What of the effect on the local economy? Here the picture is considerably less comforting. On the face of it, tourism does bring employment and prosperity to regions with few other economic options. But far too much of the money earned goes outside the area and so does a disconcertingly high proportion of employment. The unfortunate fact is that too many lodge/camp owners are not trained hospitality professionals and, look to trained staff brought in from outside to man their accommodation. This, of course, completely undermines a central imperative of wildlife tourism – to give local people a stake in the survival of the park. Just as disturbing and potentially more harmful is the increased competition for resources – water, firewood and grazing ground that wildlife tourism introduces into the area. If one were to take an aerial view of the area around Tala in Bandhavgarh or Kisli in Kanha, one would be astounded at how much territory has passed into tightly-fenced parcels of land insulated from the locals and to a great extent impinging on wildlife corridors.

As with everything, these negative aspects are relative and only need some imagination and effective management to be transformed into opportunities. Let’s take employment. The first thing that needs to be done is for park managements and wildlife lodges to work together to target staff recruitment from those areas that are vulnerable due to isolation and thus lack any economic opportunity, which forces them into timber and wildlife poaching simply to make ends meet. Secondly, we need to adopt a very strong training programme that enhances the skill levels of all employees thus opening avenues that would otherwise be closed to the village boys and girls. Many of them are educated and can be trained as cooks, supervisors, mechanics, drivers and most importantly, naturalist guides. It is a shame that the lowest-paid guides are locals whereas it is their local knowledge and skills that are utilised and are of immense value. It is these very people who should be trained and motivated to form the core cadre of guides. Of course, communication in English is a problem but not an insurmountable one and the wildlife tourism community can throw its combined weight to fund such training programmes.

In recent years, as the pressure on our wilderness grows and it is becoming obvious that improvement of local economies are critical to the business of conservation, some policy makers are turning to wildlife tourism as a prop for the conservation effort. Wildlife tourism in India can never underpin conservation in the same way that it does in certain parts of Africa. There are too many factors that mitigate this in the Indian context – not least being the incomparable disparity of human population densities between Africa and India. Secondly, land in India is far more valuable than the semi-arid tracts of Africa where wildlife flourishes and private game reserves find tourism more lucrative than ranching. But none of this means that we cannot adapt these models to our own situation. Using the imagination and goodwill of bureaucrats, politicians and the press – with significant injections of cash from well-heeled philanthropists (a key ingredient in the African model), we can create a model of wildlife tourism that enhances the size and quality of our wild places by extending the wild beyond the gates of our national parks. This, of course, takes us full circle to what the NTCA is purportedly trying to do by funnelling tourism out of the park boundaries and into the buffer zones. Of course, the reasoning behind it is negative rather than positive and is animated by a deep-seated suspicion amongst a group of our bureaucrats of anything ‘private’ and a proprietary, and deeply misplaced, sense of ownership of what is essentially public property.

Change from within

A final appeal is perhaps appropriate as I close. My colleagues in the wildlife tourism industry are often quick to blame the government for many of the ills besetting the organisation of tourism in the parks and bemoan the restrictions park managements are forced to impose to deal with rapidly expanding numbers. They are equally quick to defend wildlife tourism by pointing to the healthy wildlife populations where they operate. Yet, even the most committed of them continue to follow each other to the crowded parks rather than exploring new areas and taking the benefits of wildlife tourism to the dozens of reserves and parks that remain ignored and yet have so much to offer.

In 1980, when Dr. Ranjit Singh opened the Madhya Pradesh Tourism White Tiger Lodge in Bandhavgarh and K.K. Singh opened the Bandhavgarh Jungle Camp (eventually Churhat Kothi and now Mahua Kothi), no one had even heard of Bandhavgarh. When the Wrights operated Kipling Camp in Kanha, the park was well known only to aficionados and ex-shikaris. Both are today major commercial successes in danger of choking on their own success. Yet Pench, within a stone’s throw of Nagpur, was ignored. When we started in Pench, hardly anyone visited the area. Now it is booming. We have now started in Satpura hoping that this time, a more dynamic interaction with the government and local population will lead to more pre-emptive management of tourism designed to benefit wildlife, the local community and guarantee the quality of the wilderness experience for visitors. If we sincerely believe in the benefits of tourism, then we must put our money in the region of our mouths.


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