The rights of wildlife should come first. If we want to enter the animals’ domain, we must earn the privilege by following the right practices and behaviour

The temporary halt to tourism in core zones of tiger reserves is a wake-up call to an industry that has grown rapidly and become disruptive in some places. Rather than view the Supreme Court’s interim order as a setback, tourism operators should see it as an opportunity to set things right. While there is no question that commercial tourism must be strictly regulated, a total ban on public access to wildlife reserves would be extremely harmful, as it will negatively impact conservation education, monitoring and other conservation activities by non-governmental organisations. Sensible tourism has an important role to play in conservation, and if government and tourism stakeholders work together, it is possible to craft solutions that benefit local communities, nature lovers, tourism operators and, most importantly, wildlife itself.

While all of us may feel that we have a right to enjoy nature and the great outdoors, it is imperative that we understand that natural habitats are fragile, and ought to be trod on softly, observed quietly and enjoyed responsibly. Many developing countries, particularly in Africa and South America, have succeeded in establishing tourism practices that are low on impact and high on educational value. Many of their features can be emulated with appropriate adaptations. In India, Kerala’s Parambikulam Tiger Reserve has developed an enlightened model of wildlife tourism that is praiseworthy.

Two problems; the way out

Two fundamental problems have led to the mayhem that prevails in some of our most popular reserves: first, a majority of tourism operators have little or no regard for nature, lack any sort of long-term vision and operate only for profit — tigers and their habitats be damned. The second problem is that most domestic tourists have very little interest in nature or the quiet wilderness experience, and come almost exclusively for the thrill of seeing charismatic mega fauna, mainly tigers. Consequently, wildlife tourism in many of our tiger reserves is more akin to a visit to an amusement park, with screaming tourists, harassment of animals and traffic jams being the norm. Most resorts provide no orientation to visitors, and most jeep drivers and guides — who receive little or no training — are usually only interested in the tips they can earn. The result is a mad scramble to spot the tiger so that each resort’s visitors can feel that they got their “money’s worth” out of the visit. This type of tourism does not build a constituency for conservation.

There are other negative aspects of mass tourism. Due to a lack of land use planning or regulation, tourist resorts of all kinds have proliferated around the edges of some of the most popular reserves, creating a plethora of problems — from curtailing the traditional movement of animals towards water sources or other forests nearby, to excessive groundwater extraction and firewood use. Add garbage, sewage and noise pollution, and you have a mess that is as far from eco-tourism as it can get. There are a few sensitive resort operators who try to do the right things, and attract guests who come for the entire nature experience and not just for tigers. But like an organic farmer surrounded by pesticide-happy neighbours, the efforts of these operators and the aspirations of their nature-loving guests come to naught.

While it may require the wisdom of Solomon to mitigate tourist pressure in and around reserves where tourism has already grown too large, all is not lost. So far, the chaos described earlier is largely restricted to a dozen places, whereas India has over 650 wildlife reserves, of which about 40 are tiger reserves. So, straightaway, we have a golden opportunity to ensure that the mistakes committed in a few places are not repeated elsewhere. As a first step towards ensuring sustainable and meaningful wildlife tourism, the National Tiger Conservation Authority has formulated Eco Tourism Guidelines. With appropriate consultation and implementation, these could finally help create a win-win formula for all stakeholders.

Meanwhile, tourism operators would do well to move away from an obsessive tiger-centric focus and promote themselves as offering a broader nature experience, with the tiger as a tantalising possibility. For instance, tiger reserves like Corbett and Ranthambhore also have an excellent diversity of birds and other species. But, at the moment, one cannot watch other wildlife in peace in these reserves, with thrill-seekers whizzing past in clouds of dust. While it may initially seem financially foolish to look beyond the tiger, this strategy will ultimately pay off by attracting the right kind of visitors — people who are more interested in experiencing nature rather than creature comforts. This would not only usher in more peaceful tourism in wildlife habitats, but also enable lodges to cut down on unnecessary luxuries and optimise their profits.

To survive and justify its existence, the wildlife tourism sector has no choice but to reinvent itself and get creative. The government must nurture the right atmosphere so that new ideas and initiatives have a chance to flower.

(Shekar Dattatri is a conservation film-maker and former member of the National Board for Wildlife. Email: shekar.dattatri@gmail.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion