In recent years several State governments have raised the curtains for ecotourism in natural reserves. Obviously, ecotourism gives a chance to people to see plants and animals in their natural habitats and is a source of income to the locals. On top of that, it improves the State’s economy. But it also has its deleterious impact.
No State government has any strict rule adopted inside the declared ecotourism centres. There is no ban on use of plastic articles such as carry-bags, water bottles and disposable cups in several ecologically and biologically sensitive zones of India. It is easy to find the baneful plastic inside mangroves, tiger reserves and zoos. Also, the attitude of visitors inside recreational areas is not encouraging. Visit any of the Indian zoos and, invariably, you will find that people of all ages and both sexes tease the animals by shouting loudly and throwing stones, twigs and papers at them. These hostile and awful attitudes annoy the animals and cause them mental trauma. Especially, primates and crocodiles suffer a lot and sometimes they lose their life. It is a common scene in the Chennai Crocodile Park that during basking the reptiles open their mouths wide, into which our so-called tourists simply throw stones and pebbles. If swallowed, this would cause loss of life. Though these parks and zoos are continuously monitored by employees, damage is caused. Imagine the fate of the wild animals in the natural reserves when they are opened to ecotourism.
The use of plastic cups, bags and bottles causes havoc in the natural system. Paper cups abandoned in and around biosphere reserves might cause large-scale mortality of worker bees. A recent study by Mr. Chandrasekaran of Madurai Kamaraj University has shown that the sugary residue in the discarded cups attracts honeybees on a large scale. Workerbees swarm them and these cups act as ‘death traps’. The residue of beverages (coffee/tea/milk/juice) wets their wings and they are unable to fly. This results in large-scale mortality and the population of honeybees declines drastically.
Dammar bees or stingless bees, Melipona irridipennis (Meliporidae), one of the important pollinators, also get attracted to the disposable cups. Within 10 minutes of my observation, I found nearly 48 dead bees in a single cup and more than 800 bees in a single dustbin placed before a teashop in our area. If the trend continues for a few more days or weeks, all worker bees in a colony will die.
A special mention has to be made that these kinds of tiny insects play a key role in all forest and agro ecosystems, and they are the major group which is interlaced with several ecological functions.
It is reported that globally 70 per cent of crop plants and 98 per cent of trees in tropical rain forests are pollinated by tiny insects like bees. In the Western Ghats, the aphid bees alone contribute to the pollination of 18 per cent of 86 species of trees, and 22 per cent of shrubs. So the decline in the population of bees will cause a vicious circle at the tropic level of an ecosystem. And, finally, the entire system will crumble like a house of cards.
Carry bags and plastic water bottles discarded in wetlands cause considerable damage to the system, to the unique mangrove ecosystem and its fragile diversity. Carry bags clog the aerial roots, resulting in poor air circulation and sometimes leading to the death of young mangrove plants.
Likewise, some of the sedentary molluscan species will lose their life if they are covered by carry bags. Carry bags which settle on mudflats affect the benthic community. Finally, the mudflats, which serve as a food basket for fish, prawn and the globally declining waterbirds, will be demolished.
Also, these bags, perched on the mangrove tree branches, produce a peculiar sound during wind flow, annoying and driving away the foraging waterbirds.
Motorboats used by tourists produce a high decibel sound, which echoes throughout the mangroves. This noise disturbs all foraging, roosting, nesting and resting waterbirds. This kind of continuous disturbance may even force the birds to leave the habitat permanently and, sometimes, abandon their clutch and brood too.
It is reported that tourist activity such as sunbathing and collection of plants and animals for studies also cause damage to the system. Even leisure walks on shores and other wetlands cause stress to the tiny benthic animals. The walking events trample the benthic animals and modify the bio-geo nature of the soil too.
So, a careful assessment has to be made before an area is declared an ecotourism spot; even after the declaration, continuous monitoring is needed to assess the impact of tourism on the ecosystem and its diversity. Biodiversity is the untapped capital of a country. So it is better to shun the idea of opening hot diversity spots for public access in the name of ecotourism.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, PG and Research Department of Wildlife Biology, A.V.C. College, Mannampandal, Mayiladuthurai, Tamil Nadu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)