Indian national parks and wildlife sanctuaries had shut down during peak visitor season in March following the implementation of the lockdown to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Hence, wildlife enthusiasts as well as hotels and other allied services dependent on these wildlife reserves are eagerly waiting for directives from the government if these parks can be opened in June (the last month of the ‘open’ season for most parks before they close for the monsoon) especially since the central government has said hotels can open from June 8.
The declaration by the Rajasthan government that they are opening tourist attractions in the state, including the wildlife zones, has also fuelled expectations.
#Rajasthan is all geared up to open for tourists from today. We welcome you back. As we understand the importance of your safety, we are ready with all necessary precautionary measures.— Rajasthan Tourism (@my_rajasthan) June 1, 2020
The Forest Management & Decision Support System (FMDSS), under the Rajasthan Forest Department, has announced that online wildlife ticket booking for Keoladeo National Park, Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary and Jhalana Leopard Conservation Reserve will start from June 1 on their portal. In end May, there have also been media reports that Ranthambhore National Park will open from June 1. However, according to other reports, the forest department later issued an amendment saying the park will not open on June 1.
Irrespective of when the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are likely to open for visitors, there will be new rules to follow to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus over and above the general rules that apply to visits to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
According to a Standard Operating Procedure (veracity of which has not been checked by OT) available with the wildlife guides in Rajasthan, staff and visitors will have to undergo compulsory thermal screening and wearing of masks and gloves are must. Staff will also be required to wear head covering.
According to the SOP, sanitisers will be made available at various key points and have to be used regularly. The local authorities will have to ensure that cleaning and disinfection protocols are carried out at regular intervals in all areas frequented by visitors, with special attention to drinking water points and washrooms.
Crowding of guides, forest guards and visitors at various points, such as reception centres or permit issuing offices are to be avoided. Queues have to be maintained with prescribed distancing limits maintained. Although online booking of safaris and forest rest houses has been in vogue for a few years now, it will become even more important in the post pandemic situation. Digital payment is also likely to be the norm. Visitors will have to maintain adequate distancing when they visit reception areas and interpretation centres. There have been proposals to have sales counters for sanitiser, security kit, masks, gloves, etc.
Although national parks and wildlife sanctuaries have been following fixed timings for safaris within the forest as well as regulating the number of visitors entering the reserves, it is likely that these rules will now be subject to visitors’ adherence to all rules implemented to ensure that COVID-19 virus does not spread. The park offices will also have to maintain full address and other details of visitors, drivers and guides to ensure they can be contacted immediately should the need arise.
According to many wildlife enthusiasts, the number of persons travelling in a safari vehicle will also have to be decided because of distancing norms and that will ultimately have a reflection on the cost of a ride. Also, if a person who has made all payments yet is suspected of being COVID positive and turned away before a safari, what will be the rules for refund, if any, also has to be taken into consideration.
It is true that as we enter the new normal world, rules will have to be made and tweaked according to the prevailing situation. So it is advisable that visitors check with the state tourism and forest departments before making final plans.