My first memories of a safari are in the Churna range of Bori Wildlife Sanctuary in the early 1990s. I was a little boy, barely five years old. The safaris of those days were nothing like what we experience today. Tourism wasn't formally an activity carried out in the Bori Sanctuary. Permissions were taken from the DFO and we had to set out in our Gypsy with a trailer full of supplies to last us for the next week. The old British-era forest rest house was the place to stay and we had to hope that we carried enough supplies as nothing was available within 50km from our accommodation. A huge gaur popping his head out of a lush green bush (looking like the logo of the Chicago Bulls basketball team) is the caricature of this animal that is stuck in my head till date. This and subsequent adventures as a child gave me the wildlife bug.
Most of my childhood was spent exploring wild places with my family, but it was not till recently that I realised how much potential such activities have for conservation. The first time I understood this was when I travelled to Botswana in 2008, and witnessed the model they were following there working beautifully.
The government had leased sprawling concessions, over a couple of hundred square kilometres, to private wildlife safari operators. These operators not only took on the landscape for tourism but also for conservation. The government had introduced strict 10-year-lease agreements and the primary criteria was that the landscape should emerge richer in biodiversity when the lease agreement expired. Otherwise the lease would be terminated and another operator more motivated to conserve would be given an opportunity. The companies that managed the land would plough back the revenues from tourism into the eco-system to ensure that the habitat (which is the most important asset for them) thrives. It is in the interest of every operator to protect the environment they operate in. My travels through African countries, including Namibia, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania, were eye opening and a great example of how tourism can be the primary driver to conserve biodiversity.
These journeys within the country and to Africa, inspired me to join hands with my family and start a jungle lodge venture in Madhya Pradesh. The wildlife tourism model in India is very different and cannot be compared to different parts of Africa. But still tourism plays a crucial role in the conservation process. In India, national parks are run by the forest department and no tourism facilities can be in the reserve. Here in Madhya Pradesh, and also in other parts of the country, tourism plays a key role in developing rural economies.
Adivasis comprise a majority of the human population living around the national parks in Central India. Without alternatives, these forest dwellers depend on non-timber forest produce (like fruits, roots, flowers, honey and other forest products that have a market value) for their income and livelihood. They usually plant a monsoon crop like maize or types of millet that are typically irrigated by rain. This basic agricultural activity sustains their food requirement for most of the year. Keeping livestock is also a primary activity, and these livestock serve them to till the fields and in milk production. The livelihood activities of the forest dwellers cannot happen without interaction with wildlife; a lot of these interactions end up in conflict. When people go out to collect non-timber forest products, they are at risk of being attacked by wild carnivores, their livestock too are easy prey for tigers and leopards that roam in the forests. Herbivores are more damaging to the forest people, as they raid the crops that they grow. With such conflict, why would these people have sympathy for wildlife? And how will they be partners in protecting these species?
Tourism provides a part of that answer. There is no one who knows the lay of the land better than a local forest dweller. With tourism happening in most of MP’s major tiger reserves, many of the adivasi inhabitants of the area have become forest guards, park drivers, tourism guides, homestay owners and staff members in the lodges that operate on the periphery of the parks. This vital local economy that tourism has built has enabled locals to live in their villages while making a livelihood from an alternate activity that is not in conflict with wildlife.
In fact, tourism becomes a non-consumptive industry, as it is in every tourism operator’s interest to ensure that the habitat thrives so that the economy thrives. If done responsibly, sustainability is in-built into the wildlife tourism ethos. Apart from the economics, the tourists that visit wild landscapes become the eyes and ears of the forest and become custodians of this goodwill when they go back and tell stories of their experiences to others. Wildlife photographers who visit parks as tourists capture images that instil the romance of wild habitats and inspire people to in turn travel, engage and protect. In Madhya Pradesh alone, there are over 200 lodges employing over 6,500 staff directly. Apart from the people who are directly employed, the key partners in this process like drivers, guides, vendors and other service providers all add up to a sizeable rural economy that thrives on their most important asset, wildlife!
From being a menace, wildlife can become a primary asset with the introduction of responsible tourism models in all our forest areas. In other parts of India too there are great examples of how wildlife is thriving because of responsible community-based tourism models. Whether it is snow leopards in Ladakh, or red pandas in Darjeeling or the rhinos in Kaziranga or the lions in Gujarat; their existence is being boosted primarily by great conservation efforts by our forest department and also by the local economies that have been formed by responsible wildlife tourism. Globally, and now increasingly in India, responsible eco-tourism is a great conservation driver, and more landscapes can be protected if we carefully spread eco-tourism to boost rural economies in lesser-known wild landscapes in the country.
Aly Rashid is a Director at Jehan Numa Wilderness, which runs two wildlife lodges—Jehan Numa Retreat and Reni Pani Jungle Lodge—in Madhya Pradesh. These properties are a part of the RARE India Community of conscious luxury hotels and travel experiences in India and the subcontinent.