Wildlife Tourism: Can India Turn It Into A Conservation Tool?
Sanctuary Cover Story June 2011:Can we negotiate a path by availing of the immense potential of tourism to educate, conserve and offer employment, yet avoid the minefield of misuse and abuse that afflicts many of our finest wildernesses? And in the process can we ensure that wild species and the people who live next to them become primary beneficiaries of tourism? Can wildlife tourism physically enhance the quality and quantum of habitat available to wild species? People have grappled with this issue for over a century, but few people put the issue in better perspective than Aldo Leopold, the famous American naturalist, who opined that, "The problem with wildlife management is not how we handle the deer - the real problem is one of human management."
Wildlife tourism or ecotourism is arguably the fastest growing sector of tourism, the largest service industry in the world, which, like any other industry, is governed by bottom lines, growth and quick returns. Governments, particularly in developing economies, are cashing in on a trend. These countries are also home to some of the last remaining rainforests and endangered flora and fauna in the world. Tourists are attracted by the proposition of combining visits to little-known, ‘mysterious’ destinations, off the beaten track, while being perceived as socially and environmentally responsible. However, as demand increases and profits rule, the ‘social and environmental’ patina is losing its sheen. Often, wilderness areas are actually in retreat, or being fast degraded thanks to inappropriate tourism. And almost no money finds its way back into conservation. Nor are communities living in the vicinity of wildlife habitats getting much more than menial jobs, in exchange for sharing lands and resources that once sustained their families with dignity.
CAN WE HAVE OUR CAKE AND EAT IT TOO?
We can! Whatever anyone says about tourism, it must be recognised as one of the very few industries that can, theoretically, have an ecologically low footprint, help protect wildernesses… and offer right livelihoods to large numbers of locals.
To attain this almost magical goal, three essential criteria must be met by wildlife tourism:
Wildlife tourism must be subservient to wildlife conservation.
Wildlife tourism must help consolidate and expand wildlife habitats.
Wildlife tourism must benefit local communities.
Understandably, this is easier said than done. And today, resorts blocking waterhole access for wildlife, roads built in the wrong places, garbage dumped with impunity and ungodly noise pollution are the order of the day. And, of course, the number of images of hapless tigers and their cubs being herded by scores of vehicles, loud tourists in tow, are legend. And yet, Sanctuary believes such issues can be resolved… provided we peg our ambitions right, lay down strict guidelines and doggedly enforce them.
In response to the constant criticism that tars all wildlife tourism professionals with one brush, Aditya Singh, wildlife conservationist and lodge owner in Ranthambhore says, "About 3,000 people go in to cut wood in Ranthambhore every day, over a 1,000 enter to graze cattle, over 500 go for ‘morning walks.’ And this is a well-managed park. Yet, we blame the 150 or so tourists who go in per day for most of the park’s problems."
Abhishek Behl, Conservation Footprints adds, "The pressure on our sanctuaries is a result of the lack of visitor-impact management/assessment modules. Comparisons of pressure between different national parks are currently based on the entrance fee rather than species richness. We need to limit tourism according to its demand and its local supply. This would have a multiplier-effect approach, which could benefit all participants. The concept of wildlife tourism and wilderness responsibility needs to grow to make it a sustainable process."
With the central Indian government and state governments ever eager to consume what remains of our wildernesses for mining and hydroelectric projects, proving that wildlife tourism can be lucrative and sustainable is more vital than ever before. But this is easier said than done. A legacy of negative experiences, accelerated poverty living cheek-by-jowl with opulent luxury plus increasing conflicts with wildlife, lead most local communities to be justifiably suspicious of all conservation efforts, leave alone wildlife tourism. This is what the wildlife tourism industry, park managers and conservationists must accept. This is the mountain they must climb before they can even dream of turning wildlife tourism into a conservation tool.
But we do have an opportunity to get it right! Comparisons may be odious but consider an initiative in northern Tanzania involving just five tourist operators coming together to provide monetary benefits for a local community for doing… nothing. The community was being asked to keep the Simanijaro plains free of grazing, wood cutting or poaching. Closer home, the late Rinchen Wangchuk, Founder and Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust (SLC-IT) in Leh oversaw a community-based tourism initiative in the Hemis National Park in Ladakh that involved community homestays, which could serve as a workable model and which has won plaudits and awards from across the world.
There are scores of areas where something similar could be implemented in India, where local people could additionally earn money as ‘watch and ward’ people, fire fighters, trackers, naturalists, or entrepreneurs of all descriptions who are able to benefit from the scores of opportunities that crop up when people with cash in their pockets and leisure time land up in their backyards.
A TOURISM BLUEPRINT
To avoid most of the pitfalls of inappropriate tourism, Sanctuary endorses the idea of locating lodges, tented camps and other facilities on revenue lands outside the Protected Area (PA). The potential of clean, well-located, aesthetic and comfortable facilities owned by locals and set up in consultation with the best tourism professionals in the business, can well be imagined. We simultaneously support the idea of invoking India’s Environment Protection Act to declare areas abutting sanctuaries and national parks as Eco-sensitive Zones, governed by laws and rules that prevent large-scale construction, heavy, or polluting industries and mining.
High-end or budget, such facilities must of course share revenues with locals who are organised as collectives, possibly adapted along the lines of the dairy cooperatives that have changed the economic face of milk producers in Gujarat.
Simultaneously the wildlife and tourism departments of state governments must recognise the imperative of offering some degree of exclusivity to tourism professionals, investors and communities who work together to create nature conservancies located outside parks and which are restored to pristine status. This would encourage healthy competition as one ‘conservancy’ competes with another to attract the best and the most lucrative customers.
In South Africa, this model has worked. Farmers and park authorities there cooperated to bring down fences and turn their farms into rich wildlife refuges. To prevent overcrowding two simple rules were implemented: 1. No lodge could be constructed such that it was visible from another lodge. 2. No lodges were allowed to fence anything but the actual residential campuses to guarantee wild animals easy passage between properties. Steps were taken to keep wood and animal poachers out, waterholes and salt licks were created, fires were fought, grazing of domestic livestock was prohibited and exotic unpalatable weeds were removed. Nature did the rest.
In a short span of time, the value of the lodges and the land rose dramatically because lions, leopards, rhinos, buffaloes and elephants began to come to the very doorstep of the lodges, which delighted visitors and prompted them not only to return repeatedly, but recommend favourite conservancies to their friends and acquaintances. This is the very foundation of successful tourism.
But the fragile balance can be only maintained if tour operators and lodge owners accept that fragile areas will quickly be ruined if greed rules the day and more facilities and tourists are brought in than wild species can live with. If disturbed, animal mothers may end up feeding their young ones less often, predators lose out on hunts and birds have been known to abandon nests. Such things disturb genuine tourism professionals just as much as they do conservationists and tars them with the one-brush syndrome: "Wildlife tourism harms wildlife."
The best way out of this cul de sac would be for tourism professionals to aggressively expose and weed out the renegades in their midst. They need to support the authorities when strong actions, such as penalties, or even lodge shut downs are ordered for serious misdemeanors (such as a lodge caught baiting tigers or surreptitiously facilitating shikar). If running a tight, low-impact, green tourism enterprise becomes a matter of personal pride, trust and transparency between the Forest Department and tourism professionals can and will return. And, most importantly, visitor experience will rise dramatically.
FIVE WILDLIFE TOURISM VALUES
Enhance the natural quality and quantity of lands available for wildlife.
Offer entrepreneurial and employment opportunities to millions of Indians.
Unite the two divided groups - wildlife conservationists and forest rights activists - so they can combine strengths to protect natural ecosystems.
Offer an unprecedented nature education opportunity for people who find themselves increasingly isolated from nature in their cities.
Dramatically reduce man-animal conflicts as communities begin to look upon wild animals as an income source instead of ‘pests’.
CREATING WILDLIFE CONSERVANCIES
Today, in India, there is no better way for the tourism industry to establish its bonafides than to locate itself some distance away from the boundary of a national park or sanctuary and then work assiduously with cooperatives formed by farmers and locals to ecologically restore the marginal lands between their lodges and the forest edge. As mentioned above, this would invite wildlife to their very doorstep and give their guests the ‘close to nature’ experiences for which most people are willing to pay a premium. Apart from the financial benefit to locals, this would dramatically reduce incidents of human-animal conflicts, which are largely triggered by wildlife-farmer interactions.
Of course, such as step would expand the habitat available for wild species, which currently have a garrote around their tentative existences. How difficult is it to restore lands to their natural state? If it is done right, it is much easier than might be imagined. Most rural landscapes, even those with marginal farms on them, continue to harbour root stock of hardy, local tree and bush species that would regenerate rapidly with protection. On such lands, every regenerated tree, restored pond and grassy outcrop would become a wildlife refuge and a potential money spinner for the land owner who could build hides, machaans and camping facilities for people seeking to commune with nature.
It goes without saying, of course, that simultaneous with the restoration of lands, all lodges and conservancies seeking any kind of certification or recognition would need to invest in non-polluting, alternate-energy sources. Effective waste disposal and other best practices, well documented across the world must be in place for any lodge to qualify as an "ecofriendly" facility.
WHAT ABOUT THE ROTTEN APPLES?
In their quest to satisfy the demands of well-heeled guests, some lodge owners feel obliged to break rules to offer something ‘extra’. The same is true for vehicle drivers, guides and naturalists. Some individuals are undoubtedly very good, but you have a good chance today of getting a guide whose ethics are iffy, knows less, and possibly cares less about wildlife than you do. Some investors and contractors set up facilities only to sell them to the highest bidder. This lot lobbies against caps on the number of lodges permitted in an area, the number of cars and visitors allowed through the park gates. They have no long-term interest in the destination.
These are the rotten apples that give wildlife tourism a bad name. For them objectives such as reduced crowding and enhanced visitor satisfaction are naïve concerns. For decades, carrying capacity studies for India’s PAs have been farcical, influenced more by the ‘rotten apples’ and their political and financial backers than any sensitive ecological considerations. There is no option but to isolate the bad guys by exposing them, both in the media and by using the new weapons against corruption and skullduggery - the Right to Information Act, a job that is best done by ‘activists’ who understand the tourist trade.
As for tourists and tour operators who behave badly by breaking park rules, or endangering animals and habitats, they must be punished, severely, and exposed publicly. If this is not done even a library-full of rules will have little impact.
THE ‘GUIDING’ LIGHT
By Shivang Mehta
An early morning safari in February at the Kaziranga National Park. Within 20 minutes of entering the eastern range, a pair of one-horned rhinos capture my attention. As I visualise an angle to photograph the magnificent armour-coated mammals, three vehicles park themselves behind me. Within seconds I smell a familiar whiff and then see a piece of burning matchstick on the roadside. The driver in the vehicle behind me has lit his bidi and within minutes a couple of tourists are puffing their cigarettes. After the tobacco break, the driver conveniently chucks the remains of the nicotine stick on a patch of grassland just next to the road.
Cut to early March. I am in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve - a forest which is still coming to terms with the increasing tourist influx in recent years. My evening drive in the park is made memorable by a young male tiger right next to the road in the Tadoba zone. Slowly a chain of vehicles line up behind me. Since the road is cramped for space, one of the drivers goes off the road and parks in a small patch of the meadow to get a better view of the tiger. I could overhear the tourist in this vehicle asking the driver to inch closer to the cat and the guide (supposedly a custodian of the natural park) dutifully trying to comply.
These are just few of the many instances that I have witnessed during my forays in the forests of India that highlight why ground staff have to be sensitised to wildlife conservation needs as well as empowered to take stern measures against indisciplined visitors. Commercially viable and mature forests such as Corbett, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore have a significant number of guides and drivers who over the years have interacted with tourists from all walks of life and can hold their own against tourists and exercise control over them on a game drive. A sensitive or ‘evolved’ wildlife afficiando would rightly consider the behaviour of the boorish as disturbing, even irritating. It is imperative therefore that the Forest. Department and tourism professional link up to impart high quality training to their tourism-related staff on a regular basis.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, experienced guides and drivers must be used to train the fresher, less experienced lot. Training is critical for building the intellectual capacity of this cadre, which is why many professionally-managed private wilderness properties are increasingly hiring their own naturalists to improve guiding standards.
The quality of ground staff in national parks also has a direct impact on conservation. Ironically, a fragmented approach toward conservation seldom works. The need of the hour is for the authorities of all national parks to be guided by uniform code of conduct and rules that must keep protection at the core and enhanced visitor experience a part and parcel of wildlife tourism objectives. Such simple steps would deliver us nature guides who see themselves as custodians of India’s natural heritage and this can only be good for conservation.
Shivang Mehta is a wildlife photographer and conducts photography workshops for Nature Wanderers across wildlife parks in India.
TOURISM AS A CONSERVATION TOOL
No enterprise can thrive without an effective human resource development strategy. And a tool, even a conservation tool, is only as good as the person using it. Training and sensitising the ‘frontmen and women’ is therefore critical to the future of wildlife tourism in India. And the primary responsibility of creating a cadre of such individuals from the pool of locals who live around the reserves must be that of the tourism trade. They are the ones who need to handle visitors, orient them and keep them happy and safe. It is their job to invite guests and send back wildlife supporters. The job of Forest Departments should be restricted to protection of wildlife and habitats and enforcing discipline within parks and sanctuaries. Frankly, apart from a few notable exceptions, most forest staff are really not good at the business of sensitively handling paying customers anyway!
There are some social activists who suggest that the only way to ensure livelihoods is to enable forest dwellers to harvest forest biomass for sale to outside markets. They do forest dwellers a great disservice. This is because the market has proven to be a flawed mechanism when it comes to exercising restraint over the use of natural resources. The best example of such a failure is the ‘market-based’ harvesting of marine wildlife - the fish that reaches everyone’s tables. Across the world, the diversity and the quantity of marine species are in free fall. This is exactly what will happen if rights are given to extract timber, barks, tubers, leaves and roots to millions of people for sale to, say, large-scale factories formulating Ayurvedic (traditional) medicines, or bidis (local cigarettes), or bamboo for paper mills, or jams and honey (unless boxes are set up outside the forest).
But tourism can provide a significant number of locals with livelihoods and they can be part of the solution. Sanctuary’s position is that wildlife tourism facilities must be managed by tourism professionals who must be made to deal with local communities as owners with a share in revenues (a percentage of bed-night charges perhaps), and not merely as menials to clean rooms, drive cars, or serve tourists.
Quite literally, thousands of low-impact, high-value residential lodges could be set up across India on lands that could be restored to natural status. Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) is working towards precisely such objectives in India by promoting responsible wildlife tourism practices amongst lodge owners. To date, however, we have not yet seen the trade make any serious attempt to offer local communities a profit share in any meaningful way.
A by-product of such a welcome step, as a private (lodge and conservancy owners)-public (sanctuary and park managements) enterprise, would be the establishment of a network of conservancies on private lands outside existing sanctuaries and national parks. This would have the marvelous effect of expanding the existing PA network, which would improve corridor connectivity, offer source populations of carnivores and give predators and their prey the space they need to flourish. In the process India would benefit immeasurably from the ecosystem services that nature offers, including climate moderation, flood and drought control and water and food security. This is the kind of GDP growth new age economists want. Clearly this would also offer ‘right livelihoods’ not only for guides and those who directly service guests, but also for artisans, performers, shopkeepers, masons, carpenters and so many others… whose well-being would be dependent on the restoration and securitisation of precious biodiversity hotspots such as Ranthambhore, Corbett, Kanha, Bandhavagarh, Kaziranga and the landscapes in which they are located.
All this has been done in other parts of the world, where nations have respected the fact that conservation priorities must take precedence over tourism priorities. And there is no reason for India, with its array of biodiversity that thrives in a living canvas of deserts, grasslands, corals, coasts, wetlands, forests, rivers, lakes and mountains - not to reap its share of nature’s rich harvest.
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The Corbett Conundrum: Close It To Tourism, Or Open It Up Further?
The Making Of ‘The Wild Meat Trail’
Bird Playback - Reflections on Audio Technology and Birding Practices
The Shola Trust