“Leopard!” shouts someone with keen eyes and the 25-seater bus screeches to a halt. It reverses frantically on the muddy forest trail until the big cat is in full view: the noise of the bus and loud exclamations of the tourists wake the slumbering leopard splayed out on a tree trunk.
The tourists click photographs in a frenzy, but the leopard turns its face away. As if on cue, the driver releases the brakes — several loud hisses that make sure the big cat does not take its eyes off the bus. As the bus leaves the site, two jeeps race in. At the end of the safari, a tourist walks over to the driver and tips him for the 'good sighting'.
However, wildlife experts less than happy and have raised concerns over disturbance to wildlife from these official safaris.
At least 100 tourists join the four 90-minute safaris offered every day by the Karnataka Forest Department in the Nagarhole National Park near Dammankatte in Kabini.
C. Sushanth, a birdwatcher and wildlife photographer from Kerala, says he was shocked at one such incident he witnessed in May this year on the morning safari at Dammankatte.
“An elephant was grazing peacefully around five meters away,” he says. “The driver and some tourists in the bus shouted loudly; the tusker mock-charged at the bus and then moved away. The bus followed it and this time, the driver got out of the bus and threw stones at the elephant, making it mock-charge again.”
Provoking animals to make them move into view is unfortunately common, says another frequent visitor to the park. “A few weeks back, I saw a jeep driver throw stones at a tiger to flush it out of the bush it was hiding in,” says the owner of a local resort Kabini, who requested anonymity.
Karnataka's Forest Department lists several guidelines as part of wildlife park etiquette, including talking in whispers and maintaining a minimum distance of 30 metres from wildlife. However, these guidelines are seldom followed. On June 18, while this reporter was on a safari, the bus followed a leopard walking along the path for almost 25 minutes; the least distance between the animal and the bus at one point was less than two metres.
The Karnataka Forest Department lists several guidelines for visitors including talking only in whispers and maintaining a minimum distance of 30 metres from wildlife. However, these remain on paper. The Forest Department can take action if the guidelines are violated, warned Karnataka’s Chief Wildlife Warden Anur Reddy. “Despite our warnings, sometimes such instances occur. But these incidents will be investigated and violators punished,” he said.
It is essential that guidelines of responsible tourism and legal provisions are followed on any wildlife safari, says wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi. “Crowding around an animal, blocking its path or chasing the animal should not be done at any cost,” he says.
“Wildlife get accustomed to tourism vehicles if there is regular use of the area for tourism purposes. Large cats like leopards and tigers would perhaps take a longer time compared to wild ungulates such as chital, or elephants. This would be a big behavioural change in these normally secretive animals,” says Mr. Gubbi.
Elephant behaviour, for instance, is highly idiosyncratic and very site-specific, says pachyderm researcher Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan. “I think 50 metres is a safe distance and tourists should perhaps adhere to that,” he says.
“A short briefing on the dos and donts — like not using flashes for photography before tourists take the safari would make a lot of difference,” says Jaya Shroff, a communications specialist from Delhi, who took the government-run safari at Dammankatte.
“Orientation is a very important for any conducted tour or trek, and rules should be made clear to tourists,” says Sanjayan Kumar, former wildlife warden of Kerala's Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. In Parambikulam, all tourists must sit through an audio-visual programme specifying the rules and regulations. Employing locals as guides has also helped increase awareness among tourists and impart more information about the wildlife, he adds.