Wildlife Tourism – Reality Bites
India is a global biodiversity hotspot. Unfortunately, we don’t understand the true value of our natural wealth. We have created National Parks, Sanctuaries, Protected Areas and on the other hand we have the Tribal rights bill taking away scarce forest land from our wildlife. Who are the friends of our forests and its denizens? Sometime back I was discussing this with a wildlife tour operator-cum-photographer and and pat came the answer - Wildlife Tour operators. However, is it so? Does our wildlife tourism sector practice what it preaches – that it is non-consumptive and has minimal impact on the wildlife and wilderness? Let us look at my recent experience in Kabini.
I was suffering from cough and cold, and in a moment of inspiration, I had driven down to Kabini for a day to recharge my batteries. I had checked into Cicada resort on Saturday, 14th February. I was new to Cicada, though not new to the other resorts in the area. It has all the creature comforts like swimming pool, spa, gym to keep in tune with the profile of its clientele.
I took three safaris into the park, in the vehicle organised by Cicada (outside vehicles are not allowed in Nagarhole. Only resorts like JLR, Cicada, Waterwoods etc are allowed to ply their vehicles that seat 9 people). On 15th February morning there was a sighting of leopard with cub on a tree. In the evening, at Old MM Road inside Nagarhole we stopped the vehicle on hearing alarm calls by langurs. A leopard was trying to hunt langurs. We could hear the leopard roaring. There was another vehicle apart from our own. Soon one more vehicle reached the spot making it three vehicles waiting for the leopard to come out of the lantana bushes. Another vehicle of Cicada (KL 03 MF8956) reached the spot after being informed over mobile by our naturalist. The vehicle was loaded with foreigners. Some of them had cameras with small wide angle and intermediate zoom lenses.
My vehicle was in front and when the leopard came out of the bush and surveyed the surroundings, everybody was quiet and waiting. I had my camera ready. Suddenly the other vehicle of Cicada, carrying the foreigners, which was way behind other vehicles decided to go off road and move to the front in a desperate measure to have a better sighting for the foreigners. The vehicle drove like a rally car and sped towards the leopard. The vehicle was about 15 -20 feet off the road. The leopard which was slowly crossing the road got frightened and bolted. The crowd in the vehicle were over excited after sighting the leopard from such a short distance due to the leopard chase.
It was shocking to say the least. These are the high end tour operators who talk of responsible tourism all the time. But they understand how much will be the returns by breaking the rules. The foreigners are always sought after and given preferential treatment. For them the welfare of the leopard was not important. Had the leopard snarled at the tourists, they would have been happy to photograph it and would have had a field day recounting to the media about their skin-of-teeth escape from the jaws of sure death. There is always a possibility that in such situations, the vehicle could have either injured or killed the Leopard. Though they messed with my leopard experience, I felt more humiliated as they show scant regard for Indians when foreign clients are around. Who says racism is dead? It is thriving and has many supporters in the wildlife tourism sector, as in various other fields one comes across every single day.
There has to be a cataclysmic change in the attitude in wildlife tourism sector, else the damage done would be irreparable. Let me know your thoughts on this issue, or if any other similar experience you had in the past in our jungles.