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Treading softly

Treading softly
Kanha National Park,

Just how green is eco-tourism in India?


June 27 , 2014
08 Min Read

Wildlife tourism has boomed over the past decade. Urban families are taking time off to experience wilderness as never before and travelling in numbers not only to well-known national parks but also to lesser-known protected areas. But it's time to stop and take a look at the trajectory that wildlife tourism has taken. What, really, is the quality of our wildlife experience? What is the impact on local environments and rural livelihoods when we go wildlife-watching?

'Eco-tourism' is not simply about showing tourists attractive landscapes or mega-fauna like tigers. It is about inculcating a deeper love for diverse nature and its mysteries through innovative educational means while providing livelihood alternatives to people who depend on that ecosystem for a living. It is also about producing minimal impact on the environment in remote natural areas. Unfortunately, much of what passes off for ecotourism in India is a sad caricature of what it was originally meant to be.

For one, tiger-centric tourism has become the norm in our national parks. Most nature-lovers are familiar with the experience of over-enthusiastic mahouts chasing and homing in on an elusive tiger so that somehow the beleaguered creature can be sighted on elephant-back. While the experience can be thrilling — especially if one actually chances on the beast — most such rides, by their sheer intrusiveness, detract from the purpose of enjoying nature. Unfortunately, most tourists tip heavily when tigers are sighted in this fashion, encouraging jeep-drivers and mahouts to go on more 'tiger-chases'. Rare is the tourist who is happy meandering along a forest path, enjoying bird-calls and occasional sightings of mammals, taking nature at its own pace.

Nor is there much hope that ecological sensitivity can be created among the first-time visitor or impressionable young children, so that they refrain from intrusive practices. Few sanctuaries in India can boast of imaginative interpretation centres that can expose visitors to the biological and cultural intricacies of the area.

Some park managers are attempting to break the mould and focus attention on other, equally interesting, denizens of the forest such as small mammals, birds and butterflies through ecologically sensitive means. Take the example of the initiatives taken by the management of Corbett Tiger Reserve to encourage local entrepreneurship in nature-based tourism. The Reserve trains local youths in the science of bird-watching each year through a series of bird-watching camps. Many trainees later work as nature guides under licenses from the department. A few have actually set up their own tourism establishments for bird-watching and homestays. 

But can ecotourism be used as an effective economic tool as well? If we encourage nature tourism ventures that are managed by local people, we have the power to create powerful local allies in the battle for conservation. In India,  most wildlife reserves are surrounded by villages, with large numbers of people dependent on the forest resources. In such a situation, returns from tourism can offset at least some of the losses incurred by locals due to closure of forests for grazing and forest produce collection. But these ventures have to be developed in a way that allows locals to take the management role and, therefore, the profits that are made. It is not enough to provide low-paid jobs or daily wage opportunities to local people in tourist resorts.

There are several sites within India and outside, where promising beginnings have been made in developing wildlife tourism as a livelihood for local people. At Eagle's Nest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, a group of biologists is pioneering scientific tourism on the basis of a unique arrangement with local villagers. Each researcher pays a fixed amount to the local tribal council for the privilege of conducting field research within its forest area. The locals provide accommodation, meals and field assistance at reasonable rates. This fund is used for development of health and educational facilities and other village infrastructure. With an effective Internet-based publicity mechanism, the scheme is attracting an increasing number of tourists each year.

In the surreal landscape of the Venezuelan Tepuis (table mountains), Native Indian guides manage and control the lucrative trekking business through cooperatives. When tourists alight at the local hub, they are taken on backpacking climbing trips by village youth who take turns to work for tourist groups.

The Bagmara Community Forest in the buffer zone of the Chitwan National Park in Nepal generated a total of $2,76,432 — as much as $100 per hectare — simply from tourist entry fees in 2003. Visitors flock here to catch a glimpse of the rare one-horned rhinoceros. The revenues generated by this community forest are used for its management and restoration, as well as for developmental works for the village, decided by the Village Development Committee. Loans are also given to villagers for personal use based on group decisions by the Committee. Thus this system of revenue generation has not only led to increased awareness about the need to protect wildlife and forests but has also strengthened local democracy in village society.

In several reserves, the entry of the city-based operator has allowed many more tourists to enjoy the wildlife experience, given the generally poor development of facilities by the forest development itself. However, there are diminishing returns from allowing unlimited mushrooming of resorts and hotels in the vicinity of national parks. The environmental impacts can be huge, especially in the absence of laws governing occupancy and land use. At the same time, entry of such private operators has edged out expansion of village-based eco-tourism facilities or even governmental ones. An illustrative example is the Corbett Tiger Reserve. The increasing number of tourist resorts coming up in the villages outside the boundary of the Reserve, on the banks of the Kosi river, is adversely affecting the natural forest corridor between Corbett and the reserved forests to its east. The movement of elephants and other mammals across this corridor is already being impacted and, in turn, will affect the viability of populations.

For successful eco-tourism, local beneficiaries must come above purely business interests. In Nepal, for instance, 50 percent of national park entry fees have to go to Buffer Zone Management Committees, a conglomeration of representatives from villages in the buffer zone. Additionally, tour operators utilising park areas have to pay a certain percentage of their profits each year to parks. Back home, such a suggestion was made by the Tiger Task Force in 2005 to streamline the participation of private operators in wildlife tourism, but this sound suggestion was never taken up.

Another area where Indian wildlife tourism is lagging behind is in the promotion of sustainable practices such as renewable power, waste recycling and water conservation. Wildlife tourism resorts, especially high-end ones, should take the initiative to induct power-saving devices, establish garbage recycling and establish renewable energy sources to set examples for other smaller resort-owners as well as visitors. The Annapurna Conservation Area Programme in northern Nepal has set up systems that at least partially offset some of the environmental costs of hosting some 76,000 tourists a year. For instance, every small lodge here offers solar-powered water heating systems. Every village boasts of an ozone-based water purification station that offers a cheap alternative to branded mineral water. There is even recycling of organic waste, glass, paper and metal in the villages along major trekking routes.

Eco-tourism lags behind in India partly because of the fact that few tax incentives are given to community-based enterprises. Nor are there any large-scale innovative programmes that could give a boost to developing such entrepreneurship, the way that the Annapurna Conservation Area Project did in Nepal. Such long-term programmes engender a climate of small-scale entrepreneurship in eco-tourism along with the appropriate trainings. Eco-tourism also requires a strictly implemented regime of environmental laws on land-use zoning, local resource use, garbage disposal and water conservation, without which the growth of tourist facilities can have a counterproductive effect. Above all, nature awareness and sensitivity is needed at the local and urban levels to counteract some of the consumerism and degradation that can be created by tourism.

As numerous examples in India and elsewhere amply demonstrate, there is terrific potential in eco-tourism to educate people, strengthen conservation measures and reduce ecological impacts. But only if we design our wildlife tourism with imagination and socio-ecological sensitivity. Otherwise wildlife tourism may very well be reduced to a monster in the green garb of an ecological saviour.

The information

Our Better Natures Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala has a well-developed ecotourism programme that aims to benefit local people. Tourism options range from nature walks and rafting to treks for wildlife observation, led by nature guides from nearby villages. See www.periyartigerreserv

Eagle's Nest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh has an ecotourism programme run by Ramana Athreya in collaboration with a local tribe of Buguns. The proceeds go to the Bugun Welfare Society. Birdwatching tours are organised. See www.clsp.jhu.edu/people/zak/ramana/wapMiscEaglenestBP.htm

Corbett Tiger Reserve has a number of ecotourism options run by private operators. One of the best managed is Camp Forktail Creek (www.campforktailcreek.com), which offers elephant safaris, hiking and intensive birdwatching. For an overview of ecotourism activities in the area see www.corbettbn.com.

Manas National Park in Assam, which saw large-scale devastation in the 1980s, is on the mend. Villagers and ex-poachers have formed the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society and started an ecotourism complex. See www.manas100.com or contact Dr Bibhab Talukdar at bibhab@aaranyak.com

Mangalajodi Village on the banks of Chilika lake in Orissa, is the centre of an ecotourism project run by hunters turned conservationists. Visitors are taken into the lagoon by guides familiar with the 240 bird species here. Contact N.K. Bhujbal at wildorissa@hotmail.com or the Chilika Development Authority at 0674-2434044.


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