When the forest gates opened at Maharashtra’s Tadoba Andhari National Park in October in 2020, after a gap of seven months, Hyderabad-based K Venkateswarlu was one of the first visitors to step inside.
Passionate about wildlife photography, Venkateswarlu has been visiting forests for 13 years. But this time, given the pandemic, his experience of wildlife tourism was expectedly different. “The process of checking into resorts was longer and there were many rules in place. For instance, guests above the age of 55 and children below 10 years were not allowed. At Tadoba, in the initial days, the rooms were not given on a twin-sharing basis even if you had travelled together. And there were far less number of vehicles being allowed into the forest,” says Venkateswarlu.
His experiences with the forest safaris were different too. Of the eight safaris he did, he got a glimpse of the tigers of Tadoba thrice. “This is unlike my previous experiences when I had a great sighting of tigers. We couldn’t see much of other wildlife like deer, sambar, wild dogs too,” he says.
He had a similar experience in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, one of the prime tiger territories of India, when he visited in October. “While the tiger sightings were relatively less during the initial safaris, after the forests reopened, the tourist Gypsys were allowed to move out of their designated routes to enter other areas if a tiger was sighted there. It was a move to encourage wildlife tourism, an industry severely crippled due to the pandemic,” says Venkateswarlu, who is gearing up for his next two trips to Bandhavgarh in January.
When the Government of Karnataka decided to reopen its national parks and sanctuaries in the first week of June, wildlife photographer Harsha Narasimhamurthy breathed a sigh of relief. “In my career of five years as a professional wildlife photographer, I hadn’t stayed away from the forests for so long. It was unfortunate that the forests were closed in summers as, in Karnataka, it is the season of big cat sightings when they frequent the waterholes,” he says.
Harsha and his fellow photographer were the only two tourists at the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district. “The first safari was a unique experience as the animal behaviour had changed due to prolonged human absence. Even animals like spotted deer and elephants which usually do not care about safari jeeps, were startled to see them and moved to take cover. It took them almost four-five days to get used to the jeeps again,” says Harsha.
The pandemic impact
According to a 2018 study by the World Travel & Tourism Council, the total economic contribution of wildlife tourism to global GDP was about $343.6 billion and supporting 21.8 million jobs. With wildlife tourism coming to a grinding halt this year, it had put both the wildlife and the communities that depend on it at risk. The opening up of the forests was seen as a beacon of hope for the Gypsy drivers and tour guides.
“In Bandhavgarh, we mostly see long-stay foreign tourists and wildlife photographers coming in all through the year. They are a major source of income for us. But now the tourist profile has changed. We are mostly getting families from the neighbouring State of Chhattisgarh and very few photographers who have started booking safaris recently,” says Banty Yadav, a driver in Bandhavgarh.
In Bandhavgarh alone, there are 220 Gypsy drivers and over 70 tour guides dependent on wildlife tourism. According to Yadav, who has been dependent on the wildlife tourism industry for over a decade now, the safari bookings are way below the pre-pandemic days. “Weekends are packed now. But through the weekdays, the safari bookings are half the numbers of what it used to be last December,” he says.
“Apart from the lack of foreign tourists, the constantly changing guidelines by the State and Central government have been impacting travel trends,” says Ravinder Jain, owner of Ranthambore Regency and Sawai Vilas near Ranthambore National Park. “We have 130 rooms in both our properties and throughout the year we have an average of 70% occupancy. Usually, 90% of our guests are foreign tourists. Now, we are relying solely on local travellers. We opened the resorts in October as winters are the best time to visit the national park. Things looked good when we reopened as we had bookings from Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. But the guidelines issued by the Maharashtra Government in the last week of November that requires tourists coming from Rajasthan to undergo an RT-PCR test, has led to cancellations. Before the guidelines, we had almost 10 to 15 bookings per day, but now it is barely three or four guests,” says Jain.
It is not just the upkeep of the hotels but also sanitisation that is adding to the expenses. “We sanitise vehicles on arrival and then the luggage is also sprayed with sanitisers. There is an added expense of over ₹60,000 per month. The check-in process is completely contactless and the keys are handed to the guests in sealed packets. We sanitise the rooms before and after the guest leaves, and also in-between stays,” Jain adds.
In Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, however, the situation is better. “Tiger sightings have been good in November and in the first week of December,” says Sheikh Alim, a driver who has been in the industry for the past three decades.
“Tiger Diana and her four cubs are being regularly sighted,” he adds. Like in other national parks, the forest resorts follow safety protocols of sanitising visitor vehicles and temperature checks of guests on entry as well as sanitisation of forest Gypsys before every morning and evening safari.
The travel companies, specialising in wildlife tourism, that had been impacted by COVID-19, are now slowing limping back to business. Bengaluru-based travel and photography company, Toehold which conducts guided tours in India, Africa, Antarctica and Norway is now relying solely on domestic wildlife tours for survival.
“A major portion of revenues comes from international tours. But this year, due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, the demand for local national parks and sanctuaries has increased. For instance, until last year, we conducted 10 to 12 tours in a year at Kabini, but this year since June we have been hosting almost three to four tours every month in Kabini. This is largely because it is closer to Bengaluru and most of the tourists prefer to drive down rather than take a flight. Also, the forest’s lone black panther’s pictures that went viral during the lockdown has added to Kabini’s popularity,” says Jayantha Sharma, founder of the company.
As most of the national parks in Karnataka are fully open during the monsoons unlike the ones in North and Central India, Toehold saw a surge in demand for tours to Kabini Tiger Reserve, Bandipur National Park and Bhadra Tiger Reserve. “We are gearing up to host tours in Ranthambore National Park and Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in the coming two months,” adds Sharma.
With wildlife tours picking up pace, tour operators, resort owners and Gypsy owners are hopeful that 2021 will make up for the loss of business the previous year. “More and more people are shunning crowded places and escaping into forests. This is a good opportunity for the wildlife tourism sector,” says Yadav.