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Ecotourism – Can It Be More Than A Buzz Word?

Ecotourism – Can It Be More Than A Buzz Word?

Neha Sinha writes on the Amur Falcon conservation journey –replete with the challenges facing ethical ecotourism.

Thousands of Amur Falcons fill the skies near the Doyang reservoir and Pangti village each year in October. Some suggest this is the largest congregation of the species anywhere in the world. Photo: Ramki sreenivasan

There are many places in India with only one path leading to where you are going. That path could be of various sorts – ‘off the beaten track’ and so not even black-topped; black-topped but broken, a path that is not a road in any parlance, but paths of hope despite the roadblocks. Trails that will be traversed by the wildlifer irrespective of their state of existence. Tracks with no U-turns, no bypasses, no shortcuts – just one direction, just one destination.

I trekked up one such path, five years ago, on an unforgettably bumpy road five hours from Dimapur. I was going to what was to become my field-site, to a village very few knew about... Pangti in Nagaland.

Nagaland is not on the map for the average Indian or Asian tourist. In the Northeast, wildlife lovers will head to neighbouring Manipur to see the elusive Manipur Bush Quail, or to Assam’s splendid Kaziranga to see rhinos. Arunachal Pradesh is scoured for endemic birds and butterflies, and Shillong and its neighbourhood is scoped for caves. In Nagaland though, wildlife has been traditionally hunted, and you are often faced with the ‘silent forest’ syndrome. The hill slopes of Nagaland are clothed in acres and acres of emerald forest, a dark forest cover embroidered with bamboo, interrupted with wild banana, and bracketed by beautifully-carved village gates. The area is misty and mysterious, inaccessible yet alluring. The place holds its breath waiting for wildlife, a moist habitat rich with potential. Yet, you don’t see many wild animals, nor do you hear many birds. Many have been hunted.

Thousands of Amur Falcons fill the skies near the Doyang reservoir and Pangti village each year in October. Some suggest this is the largest congregation of the species anywhere in the world. Photo Courtesy: Neha Sinha

As I went down the road to Pangti, I was assailed by questions from the villagers. What was I doing there, a non-local, a non-tribal, and someone from ‘India’? Initial conversations were marked with scepticism – only villagers use the road, which leads to just one destination – the village. Few years down, the same village today welcomes national and international villagers, tribal and non-tribal people, backpackers, birders, day-visitors and night-halters.

Villages around Doyang reservoir had been hunting Amur Falcons and a host of other birds. The falcons migrate from Siberia and stop over at Nagaland to form what is acknowledged to be the largest falcon congregation on the planet. In 2016, the Doyang reservoir was recognised as an ‘Important Bird Area’. To stop the hunting, a conservation, education and advocacy plan was launched with local partners and a coalition of actors. The Nagaland Forest Department played a stellar role in monitoring and outreach. Amongst a slew of interventions was a participative education project, including the setting up and running of eco clubs, run by the Bombay Natural History Society and the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust. From the very beginning, we knew that addressing livelihood concerns of hunters-turned-conservationists would be a central concern. Low impact ecotourism seemed like the obvious way ahead. When done right, ecotourism can provide both ownership of natural beauty and biodiversity, as well as respect and livelihood.

But would ecotourism work in a place where no non-Nagas, let alone non-Indians, ever went? We had to try.

The basics of tourism that aid nature are straightforward. Profits from tourism must primarily benefit the community, which needs to be empowered through the enterprise. Profits should not be cornered by hotel or resort chains as is currently the case across India. At the heart of ecotourism is the fact that the destination must benefit and the community should accept that keeping the wilderness and ecosystem processes intact is in their self-interest.

The Pangti village council head with other members and locals release an Amur Falcon. Until 2012, these villagers would kill as many as 100,000 birds each year to sell or eat. Photo: Ishaan Raghunandan

It is that quality of wilderness, enmeshed with a vibrant source of livelihood, that guides the enterprise.This leads to the second central value, which is that the land, the forests, the wildlife are of greater value in a natural state than in a built, acquired or poached form. Ecotourism should not endanger wildlife, neither should it lead to creation of additional infrastructure that burdens natural areas. To have healthy, exciting ecotourism, one should not have to open chains of concretised buildings, ‘build’ parking lots, or fell trees for clearings.

In today’s situation, where natural ecosystems are in retreat, ecotourism should involve rewilding degraded habitats and should ‘fit in’ with the landscape, not stick out. This leads me to the final central value. Ecotourism has a sense of place, it is rooted in the local. It makes a thoughtful connection between natural heritage and cultural heritage. For instance, in Pangti village, we have encouraged home stays and not ‘hotels’, and we expect tourists to enjoy clean, quaint, safe local infrastructure – in essence, the very homes of the villagers. The food is local, and tourists are not promised Italian pasta or English breakfasts. The culinary experience is unique and healthy and comprises what locals eat, or can easily procure.

It is also vital to consider the impacts of ecotourism. The obvious ones are plastic and garbage. Less obvious are psychological impacts or negative cultural interactions. Visitors should be oriented to be mindful of local sentiment, without disrespecting customs or flaunting inequalities.

Commendable conservation-education and advocacy (Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 1, February 2014) worked wonders and the Doyang reservoir is today an Important Bird Area (IBA). Photo Courtesy: Neha Sinha

Ecotourism gone wrong

Ecotourism is often seen as the panacea to cure both livelihood deficit and engender wildlife and wilderness conservation. But the best intentions can fast turn unethical, driven purely by the profit-motive.

I have seen ecotourism being used as a garb to allocate and usurp money with little application of mind. For instance, there is no need of concretised parking lots where just a clearing will do. Some departments set up poorly-built and unnecessary watch towers for tourists. I have seen new tourism buildings in central India, among other places, constructed using materials considered ‘modern’ but which are anything but climate-suitable.

The rise of several new practices self-labelled as ‘ecotourism’ need investigation. ‘Bird studios’ that bait birds with artificially-laced honey mixtures on flowers need an injection of ethics themselves. Also, with an explosion of bird and wildlife photography enthusiasts, guides need to be discouraged from using playback to photograph birds. A good wildlife photograph is a great memory, but it should not come at the cost of disturbing wildlife. At the core of ecotourism is welfare of wild plants and animals, and the empowerment of the local community, which often acts as steward for the wildlife.

To ensure that plans and reality were in sync, over a whole year we organised a series of community interactions on wildlife-centred tourism. We wanted the transition to be as gentle and non-invasive as possible. We therefore encouraged the villagers to decide rates, places to stay, and dates. We accompanied two villagers to an ecotourism festival at Uttarakhand so they could witness the potential that hills hold for tourists. Those young men came back and established eating places and homestays. The villagers eventually formed a union that looked after homestay tourism, among other things.

Of course, there were obstacles. No matter how unforgettable a particular place is, one cannot alter physical infrastructure around it. Despite advocacy at every level, the road to Pangti is in a constant state of ‘under repair’. For witnessing the magic of the Amur Falcon migration, while staying in a charming tin-and-ply cottage, the visitors must traverse a long and hard road.

The upside is that this discourages casual tourists. Only those seriously interested in wildlife make the effort. This saves the village from loud, garrulous and potentially-disrespectful visitors.

Banu Haralu (extreme left), whose committed efforts helped save the Amur Falcons, is seen here with young tourists in Nagaland. Responsible and ethical ecotourism through sustained management is the key to a balanced nature conservation paradigm. Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan

Finally, the aspirations of people are also an important factor in ecotourism.

The community should evolve their own-decision making systems and internal conflict resolution rules. New livelihood options such as tourism can engender jealousy, inequality in the community and these can lead to friction. But this is true for almost any enterprise. The key is that the livelihood should be sustainable (and thus slow-growing) and also equitable (thus, may mean only small amounts of profit).

This is best achieved through a sustained engagement that has a long-term view, which might involve decades of commitment.

In Pangti, the tourism is slow. While hundreds of tourists have visited, the bulk arrive only in the migratory season. The village has managed to set its own home stay rates and is the first to witness Amur Falcons. Yet there is some confusion as to which villages will receive funding for ecotourism from the government. For this part of the world, the burden of big commerce and loud trade, coming down a broken road, is not a fair one. Achingly slow, but fairly steady, may well win the race.

Author: Neha Sinha, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 10, October 2018.


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