Whose forests are these, anyway?

Last Updated 12 September 2011, 10:59 IST

Chikmagalur district in the State is uniquely placed, in terms of its geography. Within a five-kilometer radius of the town are diverse natural ecosystems, ranging from scrub jungles in Kanive to moist deciduous forest and shola grassland ecosystem in the Giris, rich in biodiversity and equally sensitive to any kind of disturbance.

The virgin forest of Bhadra Tiger Reserve harbouring a healthy breeding population of tigers is a jewel in the crown to this region. The lofty mountains of Mullainagiri, which is the highest peak in Karnataka, and pleasant weather add to the beauty of the landscape around Chikmagalur.

There is a huge demand for eco-tourism, particularly among the urban middle-class, thanks to changing lifestyles and higher disposable incomes. This demand is often fuelled by tourism agencies and governments. Thanks to the heavy inflow of tourists to this region, there has been a mushrooming of numerous resorts, home stays and tourism infrastructure in an unplanned manner in the landscape that was hitherto untouched.

The eco-sensitive mountainous regions of Chikmagalur district such as Kemmanagundi, Bababudangiri, Mullainagiri and Hebbe falls have been the latest victims of unplanned and unscientific tourism. 

Traffic mess
The landscape around Chikmagalur is extremely fragile with loose soil and narrow roads. The forests and coffee plantations in the vicinity of Chikmagalur are a vital component of the buffer zone and corridor for the movement and survival of wildlife. Due to the heavy inflow of tourists beyond the carrying capacity of the region, especially during weekends, most of the narrow roads in these places are choked and road accidents have become common.

This is observed even on the roads of Chikmagalur. It has been reported that from just one of the check-posts near Chikmagalur, a total of 500 tourists pass by in more than 100 various types of vehicles on the mountainous road every day and this increases more than five-folds during the weekend. This number could be much higher if vehicles passing through all the check-posts in the region are considered.

To ensure free movement of traffic in and around the popular tourist spots, road widening is being done even in the fragile mountains where the soil is loose. This has resulted in massive landslides, especially during the monsoon, affecting the daily life of local people apart from damaging the landscape, leading to run-off and erosion. Tourism-induced heavy movement of traffic in the serene region associated with unruly behaviour of people and noise disturbs the natural habitat of wildlife and their movement. Often it is noticed that the several smaller and even bigger animals are falling victim to speeding tourist vehicles.        

Real estate menace  
In the name of promoting eco-tourism, the government is pumping in a large amount of money to create infrastructure facilitating tourism without proper planning and impact evaluation. Several private land owners in the region are also resorting to large-scale land conversion and construction of resorts and home stays in eco-sensitive places, opening up virgin patches of landscape to bank on the demand.

Private tourism operators, hoteliers and land mafia are also in the race to buy land in the region and construct resorts and spas to cater to the craze for eco-tourism. This has further pushed land prices up, unrealistically. Commercial resorts and home stays are raiding upon freely available natural resources of the region.

Due to this, not only are the locals deprived of ecosystem services from common property resources such as catchment areas, gomal lands and so on, but also construction of buildings close to the sanctuary here is fragmenting the forests and cutting off crucial forest corridors, permanently obstructing the movement and migration of large wildlife such as elephant, tiger, leopard etc., which may eventually lead to intensified human wildlife conflict, species isolation and local extinction.

The inflow of tourists also brings in tremendous amount of litter to the tidy landscape. Though plastic is strictly banned in the district and manned check-posts have been set up to monitor tourists carrying plastics to tourist spots, this has turned out to be a herculean task

The promotion of eco-tourism in an eco-sensitive region like Chikmagalur should be based on scientific understanding of the location, after assessing its carrying capacity and the sensitivity of native ecosystem to human induced disturbances. Apart from learning lessons from the experiences in other popular locations, it is important to have interdepartmental co-ordination and involvement of locals and scientists in planning an eco-friendly tourism strategy to sustain in the long run.

MoEF’s eco-tourism policy draft
*Appreciate the colours and sounds of nature.
*Treat protected areas/wilderness areas with respect.
*Dress in colours that blend with the natural environment.
*Take pictures, but without              disturbing wildlife.
*Observe the sanctity of holy sites, respect local customs.
*Keep a reasonable distance from wild animals, and do not provoke them.
*Dispose waste responsibly: carry back all non-biodegradable litter, and leave campsites litter-free        before departing.
*When in a vehicle, remember wild animals have right of way.
*Keep to the speed limit, don’t use the horn, and don’t startle animals.
*Do not talk loudly or play loud music.
*Do not get out of the vehicle or approach wild animals.
*Do not approach animals closer than 15 m or disturb them while they are resting.
*Do not take away flora and fauna in the form of cuttings, seeds or roots.
*Do not feed wild animals.
*Do not light fires or smoke inside protected areas. Accidental forest fires cause irreparable  damage.
*Carrying of guns, fire arms, inflammable materials are strictly prohibited, as per the  provisions of the WildLife Protection) Act, 1972, and is punishable by law.
(The writer is with the Centre for Wildlife Studies.)

(Published 12 September 2011, 10:59 IST)

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