In India, eco-tourism means hunting for money

Generating funds and guaranteed sightings of exotic fauna are part of the misguided strategies of eco-tourism. Some 12 jeeps had converged at a point in the forest. In all there were about 50 people in them. They chattered and whispered in excitement, waiting for the tiger to emerge from where it was hiding. Finally it did, as it darted across the open space into the safe covers of the bushes and disappeared, almost like a ghost. Leaving behind the people in various levels of nirvana! Reporting on the "sightings' back at the resort, everyone was pleased. The manager, the guides and the tourists. The visit had been worth it, finally. But, a thought remained: what could be the thoughts of the tiger, that had been almost "ambushed' (in the words of a forest officer)? Opinions vary. On whether eco-tourism is a benevolent thing or can lead to more damage of our already fragile forests and wildlife. True eco-tourism is one in which the tourist takes back some lessons, and leaves behind nothing, no footprints. He/she learns to respect nature and the laws that operate in its pristine world. But, alarmingly what is emerging is nothing like that. The operators are there for money. The tourists come for excitement. With eco-tourism the mantra, it is time for a kill. The rates speak. All comforts are offered in the wilderness. And guarantees of a "tiger encounter' even offered in some places. The tourist can be heard grumbling and even asking back for money if a tiger or elephant is not sighted. Who cares about the squirrels or birds? And god forbid a tiger or elephant that crosses path with such tourists. Flashlights pop all around as cameras zoom in. With a good sighting, the guides and drivers can be coaxed into inching closer than allowed. Pleasing their customer comes before forest rules. Some even know how to annoy an elephant and cause a mock charge. For a good digital shot. They cannot be blamed. And now, the tourism department plans to take on more areas for eco-tourism. It would have been a good idea if again "development' and revenue were not the key-words, but conservation and education. The words used clearly show that it is about "tapping unused potential'. What a pity. Not only in Karnataka, but everywhere in the country, eco-tourism is an uncontrolled phenomenon with poor planning and short-term vision of generating money. In the national parks of Madhya Pradesh, jeeps queue up in a long line and let in a few at a time. After all, one gets guarantees of sightings here! But the other side of this is the well-known fact that tigers in Kanha and Ranthambore had got so used to human presence that they became sitting ducks for poachers! However, some experts believe eco-tourism can check poaching. "Papa' Wakefield, the brand ambassador of Jungle Lodges Resorts is one who is very sure that poaching is at its maximum when the "jungles are closed to tourists in the monsoons'. Annoyed with the PCCF's direction to have the parks closed for a "breeding season in July', Wakefield does agree that there is need to control eco-tourism. In the case of Kabini, he points to how there are so many operators in the area and more coming, that there are times when 21 vehicles used to be in the jungles at the same time. Now, with the intervention of the PCCF, this has been brought down to 12. What he, and others concerned about the alarming growth of eco-tourism, say is, "while you cannot stop anyone from buying land around jungles, you can stop their entry into the forests. Limited entry is required to disturb the animals the least'. The other area that needs to be discussed is how revenue generated from these resorts can be ploughed back into the forests, whether it be for conservation or paying pending salaries of forest staff. This revenue can amount to more than Rs 2 lakh from one resort alone. In states like MP, this money is being used for forest department needs, but not in Karnataka. Finally, a true nature lover will argue that eco-tourism can happen only if the tourists are willing to rough it out, to walk in the jungle rather than ride through it, to look around and absorb the flora and fauna, to learn lessons of interdependence. It's all there if one keeps eyes and ears open. The langur's alarm call that alerts all the other denizens of a predator, the parasite tree that grows on to the host tree, the life sustained by elephant dung, etc. That is how true eco-tourism should ideally be promoted. Even otherwise, it is necessary to incorporate education into the eco-tourism as being touted. With a mere four per cent protected area in the country, even a few enlightened persons can make a difference.