Home >mint-lounge >The paradox of ecotourism

Amitabh Bachchan, standing on the moonlike surface of the Rann of Kutch, says: “Aapne Kutch nahin dekha, to kucch nahin dekha (If you haven’t seen Kutch, you haven’t seen anything)."

The actor began promoting tourism in Gujarat through the Rs40 crore campaign launched in October 2010. Vipul Mittra, principal secretary, tourism, Gujarat, says: “There has been an increase of 54 lakh in two years since Bachchan became (brand ambassador). Total 2.23 crore (tourism)." The “Bachchan route", tracing the places where the campaign was shot, is also popular with visitors.

Tourist jeeps crowd a tiger at the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Ponnambalam/Conservation India

The month-long Rann Utsav, started as part of the tourism campaign and celebrated annually at the turn of the year, leaves the Rann of Kutch badly off. Arun Agnihotri, a conservationist, says: “Most people do not realize that the approx. 30,000 sq. km (Great Rann, the Banni and the Little Rann) are an extremely sensitive ecosystem of Kutch. Crazy things are being introduced to attract tourists: like having caged emus who are fed sev by visitors. Garbage is carried by the wind. The noise has practically scared the jackals away."

A senior ornithologist, who has worked in the Rann of Kutch for two decades and did not want to be named, says: “The Rann is not ‘white sand’. It is salt-encrusted clay, and is fragile. It lies on the Palaearctic migratory route, a key path for birds from the northern hemisphere to Africa. Busloads of tourists come, pitch AC tents, and plastic bags, residue from portable toilets and garbage just lies there."

Ramki Sreenivasan, who runs the non-profit organization Conservation India, agrees, adding: “All damage to ecosystems is not necessarily visible and immediate." Mittra says a special fund for protection of the Rann has been set up; money which is pooled back at a local level.

But it is a pattern repeating in sensitive ecosystems frequented by tourists across India.

Blurred lines

In 2004, then Union tourism ministry secretary Rathi Vinay Jha, speaking about the Incredible India campaign, told Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary magazine: “Like the Taj Mahal, the tiger and the elephant are incredible drivers for tourism...the National Wildlife Action Plan itself lays out a blueprint to turn tourism into a conservation tool."

Gawker nation: Greater Flamingos at the Pocharam lake, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: JM Garg/Wikimedia Commons

In May, drunk tourists staying at the Dandeli Crocodile Park resort in the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, killed a forest officer, M.H. Nayak, who tried to stop them feeding crocodiles.

Cases of man-animal conflict prompted G. Saiprakash, chief conservator of forests, Nashik division, Maharashtra, to propose in May that such clashes should now be listed under disaster management.

On 26 May, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah stated there was urgent need for a “well-planned strategy to boost tourism without compromising the conservation of the environment", and has enforced construction bans in Pahalgam.

In 2011, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, comprising 14 international organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), stated that while ecotourism is growing at 20% annually worldwide, it is harmful to the environment if not harnessed correctly.

The extent of damage

As new resorts come up to cater to increasing tourist demands, they intrude into ecosystems.

Sreenivasan explains: “The proliferation of resorts, almost all completely unsustainable, outside wildlife parks is probably the most damaging. These resorts use surrounding natural resources; for example, stones from the Ramganga riverbed in Corbett. They release refuse into nearby natural surroundings; do not harvest rainwater, and bore deep wells in already heavily depleted watersheds such as in Ranthambore. They seldom invest in green energy and suck electricity, oiling up emissions."

A domesticated elephant used for safaris at the Corbett National Park. Photo: Manoj Madhavan/Mint

Jamoon in Corbett, once a fertile natural breeding site for tigers, is now an adventure sports hub.

Since the report in 2010, Bindra has returned many times to Corbett. “Every time I go, construction has only increased along the corridor," she says.

Apart from physical impact, environmental zones also maintain the non-physical balance within ecosystems. Krithi K. Karanth, a Ramanujan Fellow, and executive director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, says: “There are resource impacts—water and fuel wood use which has gone up tremendously due to the resorts popping up around our parks. This results in direct conflict between park managers, local people and the tourism industry. Having swimming pools and flowing water fountains seems extremely wasteful when local people are unable to access clean drinking water in arid regions such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh."

Moreover, few local people benefit directly from tourism, land prices have gone up, pushing locals away from ancestral lands, and wildlife is becoming an “elite" activity, Karanth says.

The balancing act

Minakshi Pandey and Ritish Suri have lived near Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, for two decades and have run an eco-lodge, Camp Forktail Creek, for 12 years. “At the turn of the century, things started to change in Corbett. The handful of lodges around started increasing their room capacity to attract non-wildlife-related businesses like weddings and conferences. It was horrible hosting a guest," Pandey says.

In 2000, inspired to make a change, they leased a barren piece of farmland in a village without road or electricity but surrounded by forest. They built huts of mud from their own land and still use only solar energy. “We flourished despite the voices of doom telling us what a bad idea it was," she says.

Examples like these, of ecotourism that contributes to the environment rather than taking from it, are rare. Campaigns such as those to save the tiger too have been influential, policy-wise.

Ravi Singh, CEO and secretary general of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), India, believes a balance can be achieved. “The benefits of ecotourism are undeniable. It is too drastic to say tourists are destroying the ecosystem. Tourism should be regulated. There are certain areas, such as breeding grounds, where tourists should not be allowed."

Some wildlife parks, like Bandipur, have tried repeatedly to act against night safaris but have been under pressure. In Assam, the government is curbing tourist facilities around the Kaziranga National Park. In Bhadra, Karnataka, a new multi-crore hotel under construction faces protests.

Sreenivasan says: “Organizations have been formed in the tourism sector and their task is obvious—proactively come up with regulations and brutally self-regulate. This should be easy but we have not seen leadership to bring about this change in the tourism camp."

As Karanth puts it: “Theoretically, tourism can help support our parks with much needed conservation funds or employment for local communities. However, in India we are in a race to magnify tourism growth without any concern for the consequences. Right now there is little ‘eco’ in wildlife tourism in India."

What you can do

Here’s how to be a responsible tourist

• Do not use facilities that have altered the natural habitat. These may include resorts, hotels, swimming pools, especially boundary walls and fences. These alter and inhibit animal movement.

• Avoid resorts that have swimming pools or fountains. These are wasting a precious local resource, especially in areas with water scarcity. Check if the resort uses a rainwater harvesting device.

• Recycle: You can use a towel for two days instead of demanding room service replace it every day.

• Avoid the use of detergents, soaps and toiletries that are toxic or not eco soluble. Check if the resort has restrictions on detergents, soaps and toiletries or waste-management systems and solar power.

• Do not use perfumes and deodorants on a safari.

• Do not use light and sound in restricted zones after dark. Do not insist on night safaris, driving through protected zones, or playing the stereo loudly. If unavoidable, put headlights on low beam, use the dipper and drive slow.

• Use resorts or home-stays run by local communities, people dependent on the forest, however basic. Ensure you are contributing to the local economy.

• Do not crowd the animals. You may feel like your safari is a waste if you haven’t seen a tiger up close, but as one conservationist put it: “How would you feel to be put on exhibition, surrounded by 40 jeeps, each with eight humans, each with a camera?"

gayatri.j@livemint.com

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