The flip side of wildlife tourism

A man getting off the car inside Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Over the recent years, there’s a swarm of ‘self-styled’ wildlife photographers and pseudo nature lovers venturing into the woods. The forests and wildlife are facing a new threat in the form of ill-informed eco tourists and unethical photographers who fail to realize that the jungle is the home of wild animals. Until a few years ago, only a handful of passionate wildlife enthusiasts made trips to the reserve forests and a single shot took hours of perseverance. Nowadays, patience is hardly a virtue attached to nature photography. Unfortunately, chasing and teasing wildlife is the latest trend and the handiest way to get that perfect action shot. It’s ironical that when wildlife photography is all about candid spontaneous moments in the wild, much of what we see today is orchestrated or staged. This crop of self-claimed shutterbugs is disturbing habitats, robbing the wild citizens of their right to privacy and peace and in the process altering animal instincts and behaviour.

For instance, the mating images of Maya and Matkasur male (the famous tiger pair of Tadoba) went viral on social media recently and every other wildlife photographer on Facebook posted pictures of the pair shot from various angles, garnering million of hits and likes. Now, how ethical it is to mob around a mating pair of tigers, literally thrusting the lens all over the beasts’ private moments? It’s probably adventurous for the lensmen but definitely harrowing for the tigers. In most wildlife safaris the jeeps gherao the big cats, restricting their movement, thus facilitating a close-up and even selfies with the animal. Animal experts say that such insensitivity towards wildlife is making the animals aggressive and restless.

Big animals such as elephants, gaurs and rhinos are chased by jeeps, provoking them to charge and attack, in turn making for a great action shot to be put up on facebook or sent to competitions. Thankfully, it’s a mock charge most times and in those unfortunate real attacks it’s always the animal that suffers a branding and later culling or a torturous capture. There are also tourists who violate rules of the forests, get down from the vehicles and go close to wild animals attempting an exhibition of cheap heroism. In case the animal reacts, it gets branded as ‘rogue’ or a ‘man eater’ for no fault of its.

“Irresponsible wildlife tourism is not only a threat to conservation, but also dangerous to both humans and animals. Shy animals like tigers would shift territory in case of too much human intrusion. On the other hand, illegal safaris and treks without permission and guidance from the forest department may lead to people getting stranded or lost,” says D. Venkatesh, District Forest Officer, Dindigul.

Birds are the worst hit by these unethical methods. “There are reports of wildlife photographers pruning and clipping tree tops to get a clear view of the nest, thus leaving the chicks exposed to predators,” says Arun Sankar of Palani Hills Conservation Council. “Once I saw a group of greedy shutterbugs disturbing the nest of Great Indian Hornbill in Anamalai hills, just for a flight shot.” Smaller mammals like Bonnet Macaques, Lion Tail Macaques and Chitals and peacocks face a peculiar threat where they are lured by bait, mostly chips and coke for monkeys and puffed rice for peacocks – all for a ‘wild’ experience or a ‘unique’ shot. Apart from losing their natural instincts, the animals pay the dearest price, their life. Monkeys and peacocks can be seen approaching speeding vehicles in the hope of being fed, thus getting hit and killed.

“Animal roadkills is a serious issue as we have highways and roads cutting across forests,” says H.Byju, member of PATH (Provide Animals safe Transit on Highways) initiative that undertook a 43-day trip covering 79 reserve forests in the country last year. “On our trip, we recorded 92 animal roadkills, including wolves, mangoose, monkeys, peacocks, a variety of birds and deers. The maximum number of roadkills was on the stretch from Jaisalmer to Bhuj, which is the extended region of the Thar Desert. Feeding wild animals is the main cause for them to approach the vehicles on road.” He adds, “Photographer even device newer methods to attract animals. The latest is to leave a bucket of salt and water by the roadsides, attracting elephants and sloth bears.”

Unauthorised adventure tourism in the fringe ranges of forests that doesn’t fall within designated reserve areas is a flourishing business. “Animals obviously don’t recognise man-made boundaries and those that roam out in the ‘buffer zones’ where patrolling is absent, often fall prey to harassment of various kinds,” says Arun Sankar. At a time when our wildlife is facing much pressure from habitat loss due to encroachments, illegal culling and poaching, the surge in irresponsible tourism has only added to their woes, going against all principles of conservation. It’s high time we learn to respect the rules of the wild, observe discipline, exercise restraint and be sensitive towards nature and wild animals.

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