Most people’s idea of a green holiday is to make a trip to a wildlife reserve. A recent study of 10 Indian reserves shows that wildlife tourism in India is growing at 15% every year, and that 80% of the visitors are domestic tourists. We could perhaps view this as a positive sign, because, according to conventional wisdom, people will protect what they love. But the question that I’m tempted to ask is, with well over one million people visiting nature reserves every year, are we ‘loving our wildlife to death’?
Let’s look at some of the direct impacts of ‘green holidays’. Although there are over 600 wildlife reserves in India, most people flock to just a few where they can see large animals. Since tigers are perennial favourites, tiger reserves such as Ranthambhore, Kanha, Corbett, Bandhavgarh and Bandipur attract large numbers of visitors. The first big impact around our most popular reserves is the haphazard development of tourist resorts. Often, these resorts occupy every available plot of land around the entry points to a reserve. A majority of them dump their garbage nearby - out of sight of their guests, of course - and often release raw sewage into the nearest stream. They may also buy firewood from local people who illegally cut it from the same reserve! Profligate water use by resorts also leads to a depletion of the water table in the entire region. Loud parties and other incompatible activities add insult to injury. Eco-tourism? Think again.
The next big impact is the way visits into the forest are conducted. Barring a few exceptions, it’s a free-for-all in most of our popular reserves, with several hundred vehicles allowed in daily. Since most visitors are not nature lovers in the real sense, but are simply fixated on getting the maximum bang for their buck, resort vehicles race around the forest trying to locate ‘popular’ species, raising clouds of dust that can rival a war zone. It is not unusual to see a tiger surrounded by 30-40 jeeps full of tourists, all dressed in their colorful best, and shouting at the top of their voices. The drivers and the so-called guides who accompany the tourists are more interested in the tips they can earn, and therefore neither educate nor restrain visitors. And as for the guests, even the most educated seem to forget that they are in a nature reserve, and behave as though they are in an amusement park. The sad fact is, the few who crave a genuine wilderness experience will almost certainly not find it in most of our wildlife reserves.
It need not be so. Here are some tips for making your trip an experience in truly communing with nature.
First, avoid the most popular reserves. Not only will you be putting more pressure on them by going, you’ll just get a mouthful of dust for your efforts.
If possible, avoid peak tourist seasons, weekends and popular holidays.
Select your place of stay with care. A nature oriented ‘no frills’ guesthouse or ‘home stay’ can offer a more ‘close to nature’ experience.
When visiting the reserve, don’t be obsessed with seeing a tiger, leopard, elephant or whichever is the most ‘popular’ animal in the place.
Learn to appreciate and enjoy the forest in all its beauty.
Tell your driver and guide that you want a quiet drive so you can soak in the ambience, and stop and pay attention to all the other wonderful creatures in the forest.
Wear dull-coloured clothes and carry a pair of binoculars.
Above all, maintain silence. Breathe in the clean air and let the sounds of nature wash over you. There is no better stress buster.