The big city in the jungle

The tourism industry in India has grown rapidly, especially during the past decade. It now contributes nearly nine per cent of the GDP and more than 6 per cent of total employment can be attributed to tourism, with eco-tourism as the fastest growing sector. Although a fairly new concept, it is hardly surprising that India, which boasts incredible natural biodiversity, is looking to expand in this sector. However, uncontrolled expansion can lead to extinction of the very world we are looking to promote.

Traditionally, eco-tourism is viewed as responsible, ‘friendly’ travel to natural areas that causes minimal damage to the environment, while sustaining and promoting the well-being of the local people and wildlife. This is an ideal that is often far removed from reality.

For eco-tourism to succeed, the government and organisations involved must strive to enhance the positive effects that eco-friendly tourism can have upon wildlife, while minimising the drawbacks that are inevitable if the local people and the environment are not at the forefront of the initiative. To some extent, the tiger census will provide a measure of how far eco-tourism has actually progressed.

There is no doubt that eco-tourism can make a difference to wildlife. One of the most noted examples is the Bandhavagarh National Park, a highly developed eco-tourism forest, which boasts a staggeringly high density of tigers — 1 in 5 sq km — in its tourism zone. This is not a lone example. Nearly every park in India popular with tourists has a thriving wildlife population. One reason that tourism has such an immediate impact is its negative effect on poaching. There is increased awareness, from lodge owners, conservationists and forest officials to preserve their livelihoods, so their vigilance against poachers, and other such local conservation deterrents increases.

On the other hand, in national parks without tourists, there are also few animals, and of course, no tourist will visit a national park that is devoid of its animals. So what is the problem? Wildlife numbers are seemingly increasing, poaching is down and it should follow that eco-tourists are happy. For the moment this is perhaps true, but in the long-term, this is more doubtful.

As eco-tourism expands, the demands on ‘eco-lodges’ increases and an increasing number of resorts are built, at the expense of the wilderness and the natural resources that are supposedly at the heart of eco-tourism. Such expansion also introduces ‘big city’ competition, followed by an inevitable decline in the ‘eco-friendliness’ of the resorts.

Kalyan Varma, a renowned wildlife photographer and naturalist suggests, “There is nothing ‘eco’ about many resorts. They pollute, pull out of ground water and sometimes even use round-the-clock generators.” Contrary to the nature of eco-tourism, resorts are an introduction of urbanisation to the wilderness.

The expansion of such resorts increases the strain on the already haphazard management of some parks. For instance, a Junior Tiger Task Force report found that there were up to 18 vacant forest guard posts. At one point in 2008, 3 of 5 posts for senior officials were vacant in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. Eco-tourism, without definitive management will not be ‘friendly’ to anyone in the near future. Another problem is that many parks do not have regulatory or standardised guidelines for crowds. During peak seasons, they are invariably overflowing with tourists, transforming the park into a circus melee.

Such numbers are unmanageable, and safaris become akin to a race, where the Bengal Tigers — supposedly one of the great treasures and symbols of India — surrounded by masses of jeeps, placing stress on the animal. Some parks may become less a national park and more a drive-through zoo. Is this the compromise that must be made to keep the tiger alive?

One of the main aims of eco-tourism is to support the local economy. Surely, with eco-tourism growing rapidly, this is the least of our worries? Unfortunately, all the money a national park earns from eco-tourism is redirected to a central India trust fund. Similarly, much of the employment is directed away from local communities. In many cases, even if a resort employs locals, it is mostly for unskilled labour like cleaning and is not truly empowering. In the true eco-resorts, there are dedicated training programmes and a determination to train locals for employment.

When I went to Kabini Jungle Lodges last summer, it was heartening to see the local community employed in its daily functioning — a fine example of eco-tourism. The locals are trained in a range of skills from cooking to working as naturalists. Indeed, some villagers may be familiar with the forests and have an unparalleled knowledge of the wildlife and its surroundings.

Ultimately, it is the guide on a safari that can boost a tourist’s trip. Local people have the potential to be an invaluable knowledge source. The eco-tourism industry should design and fund a programme that will be fully empowering to the local population, tourists and eco-tourism as a whole.

A rapidly growing field in the tourism sector, careful management and guidance of its expansion is necessary for eco-tourism’s long-term success. As it stands, the traditional aim of eco-tourism exists only as an ideal. Fortunately, solutions do exist. International certification programmes similar to those introduced in South America by the Rainforest Alliance could be implemented in the short-term to allow tourists to make more informed choices before choosing a resort.

This would hand over some responsibility to the tourists themselves and hopefully relay the importance of this issue back to the industry. But eco-tourism in India can only truly survive if regulations and guidelines encompass more sustainable, long-term solutions, rather than focusing on GDP figures that place high value on the number of resorts and its tourists. Quality of resorts, not numbers is what matters.

— The writer is a medical student based in Britain. – Express Buzz

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