Kabini’s famous Torn Ears walks head on on the safari track followed by a van full of excited wildlife buffs.   | Photo Credit: Arvind Ramamurthy/@arvindrthy

In the late 19th century, the British upper class discovered the wild. They travelled to Africa by the boatload, armed to the teeth with mosquito netting and portable china… They were the early samplers of the safari.

In India, where we only have to venture into our backyards for similar experiences, the turn of the millennium brought into view the commercial potential, drawing domestic tourists to national parks and sanctuaries. Lately, however, in a multi-pronged bid to stem that tide, protect forest ecosystems from over-gazing, and yet keep revenue-streams high, several parks, reserves and sanctuaries have started to crank up the costs. This has resulted in the loss of the common Indian tourist.

For example, at Kabini River Lodge tour packages vary from ₹10,266 for a tent, to ₹15,700 for a cottage, per person per night on twin-sharing basis. Bandipur starts at ₹8,673. Corbett National Park, has stay-and-safari packages starting at ₹4,800 per person, per night. At Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa Forest Rest House, rates start at ₹4,499 per person, exclusive of taxes. The rates increase by 40% on occasions like Christmas and New Year. Parks with higher traffic like Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh have sown a cash crop of private lodges for every budget.

“Wildlife tourism is becoming more exclusive and high-end,” agrees Monish Mullick, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden – Uttarakhand. “These parks cannot be made mass destinations. They are core and critical habitats of many endangered animals that have to be managed, protected and conserved.”

If wildlife tourism earlier objectified the animal and its habitat, its focus has reversed in the last decade to foreground conservation, and the development of local wildlife economies in aid of it. Several popular parks (invariably ones with higher big cat and big mammal sightings) are championing the low-footfall, high-revenue model. Perhaps they believe those who can’t afford to see animals in the wild can always go to the zoo.

“The minute we limit a particular segment of society from visiting the forest, we’ve lost the idea of conservation,” counters Shrilekha Venkateswar, founder of Wild Walk, a wildlife literacy and conservation company in Chennai. “When you deprive people a chance to enter the forest, you’re denying them the opportunity to know it. All stakeholders of the forest are crucial to wildlife conservation – the government, media, researchers, and the common man… if you knock one pole, the whole system is imbalanced. If entry fees, and costs of safaris and photography are to be raised, it should only be to cover operational expenses, not for profit,” she maintains.

Sushil Chikane, proprietor of Journeys, a Pune-based wildlife tour company, says that the variation in rates across parks puts expensive ones out of reach. “There ought to be standard rates at least in the national parks. It undermines conservation efforts if footfalls are only concentrated in a few places,” he says, adding that if the middle and lower classes have never visited a reserve and seen the forest for themselves, they will never feel the need to support conservation policies.

“And what is conservation, but the cultivation of public opinion?” posits Anirudh Chaoji, biologist and founder of Ran Mangli Foundation that creates income-earning opportunities for communities around Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur, Maharashtra. Its star is on the rise, given the high tiger population of around 88. “It is only when people have seen the actual tiger in its habitat — not just read about it in a textbook — that they feel the need to protect it. Ecotourism should be equitable tourism – not only funnelling revenue back into local communities, but making it affordable and accessible to all,” he explains. Chaoji hails the reserve’s efforts at this. “Children from about 100 schools around the forest are brought to spend one night in the wild for free. Moreover, unlike outsiders who have to book safaris two to three months in advance, those from around the forest can avail of the cheaper canter, barely three days in advance,” he says.

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The Gordian Knot is really one of supply and demand. But if conservation is the ultimate aim, the most effective way, says Vijay Kumar, honorary secretary of the Madras Naturalists’ Society, is to be inclusive. “Reserve a day for schoolchildren, for people living within a certain radius of the park. And before every safari, an orientation programme ought to familiarise visitors with the vegetation, the effects of climate change on that park, and the challenges and benefits of conservation.” Not to forget, he adds, that a forest is more than just the sum of its tigers.

Printable version | Sep 15, 2019 9:58:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/locked-out-of-the-jungle/article25849207.ece

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