Unregulated wildlife photography tours in Kotagiri putting humans, animals at risk: conservationists

Updated - November 02, 2023 05:09 pm IST

Published - November 01, 2023 08:14 pm IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

A melanistic leopard, near an illegally placed camera-trap by private “wildlife experience” organisers to capture images and videos of wildlife across the Nilgiris.

A melanistic leopard, near an illegally placed camera-trap by private “wildlife experience” organisers to capture images and videos of wildlife across the Nilgiris. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Following the success of nature documentaries filmed in the Nilgiris, the demand from amateur photographers to capture images and footage of wildlife and landscapes from the district has increased exponentially. This has led to the proliferation of operators promising “wildlife experiences” across the Nilgiris who charge photographers steep prices to document wildlife.

However, the unregulated commercialisation of photographing wildlife has led to huge problems for the Forest Department, which has begun acting against operators of such unregulated photography tours.

One amateur photographer, who was recently part of one such group which operates out of Kotagiri, said that the recordings of the calls of rare and endemic birds are used by the operators to lure these species out into the open where they can be easily photographed. “The ethics of using such recorded birdcalls has been a matter of great debate among photographers. These groups also use camera traps to get images and videos of wildlife,” he said.

The rates charged by these operators also vary, based on the rarity of the animal that they claim to be able to get, say Forest staff from the region. “Most of these groups operate out of Kotagiri. If the operators successfully track down a leopard, they charge many thousands of rupees from their clients,” said a Forest staffer who did not wish to be named. There are even reports that a chance to photograph a melanistic leopard could cost photographers in excess of ₹5,000.

This incentivises getting clients as close as possible to potentially dangerous wildlife, such as leopards, tigers, elephants and sloth bear, say conservationists who add that these disturbances could also have a huge impact on the wildlife that is being photographed. “For instance, if these people get too close to a leopard or a sloth bear, which could be with cubs, this could lead to the animal getting spooked and either abandoning the cubs or attacking people,” a Forest official said.

According to Suryoday Singh Mann, team lead-documentation and filmmaking, Wildlife SOS, people getting too close to wildlife, to film or photograph them is a problem in many places across India, including in Sonamarg in Kashmir, where recently a man was attacked by a Himalayan Brown Bear when he was trying to film it. He said that this could be one of the first instances of brown bears attacking people, while humans getting too close to wild animals have also reported from other protected areas such as Jim Corbett National Park and Gir Wildlife Sanctuary.

Avni Gupta, communications strategist from Wildlife SOS, said that such interactions can lead to heightened stress among wildlife and could also lead to more instances of poaching and trafficking as more people will know the locations of wild animals. She said that laws such as the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) Forest Conservation Act (1980), The Indian Forest Act (1927) and The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 give license to Forest administrators to restrict commercial activities in protected areas and stop disturbance of wildlife.

Mr. Mann said that photographers who are starting out with wildlife photography should first learn about the habits and behaviours of the animals they wish to document, and work with researchers and wildlife biologists. “They should follow guidelines to ensure their safety and should also ensure that they do not disturb the animals that they wish to photograph,” he added.

Clamp down begins

Following complaints from wildlife activists and conservationists across the region, the Nilgiris forest division has begun clamping down on these operators. District Forest Officer (Nilgiris division), S. Gowtham, said that the Forest Department has been aware of the issue of private, unregulated wildlife photography tour operators. for the past month.

“While there are two groups who have received permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden to document human - animal coexistence in Kotagiri, there are others who are charging batches of tourists every weekend for a chance to photograph birds and other wildlife,” said Mr. Gowtham. He said that as they were not conducting these tours inside reserve forests, it was difficult to monitor their activities. “However, we have issued strong warnings and also notices stating that if they continue to disturb wildlife, they would be charged under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972,” he said.

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