To whom this forest belongs?

territorial

To whom this forest belongs?

Words fail to explain the experience of watching a six-year-old sub-adult tigress walking towards your open jeep and semi-circle it at a distance of 10 feet while posing for the cameras, showing off her glittering skin, piercing eyes and a ‘baby bump’. Words also fail to explain the ‘enthusiasm’ of a few of our co-safari tourists, who in an anxiety to save the ‘poor’ deer, raise their voice to alert the prey, and deprive the ‘cruel predator’ its meal. But what they don’t realise is that their ‘concern’ for the deer is actually interfering in nature’s food chain.

Both environmentalists and officials are  divided on the issue of whether tourists should be allowed into the world of animals — the forest — or not. While one section strongly argues that the presence of humans in the forests is causing more damage than helping it, the other section feels that we can create awareness among people regarding the importance of forest life by letting them have a first-hand experience. However, both sides unanimously agree that whatever is done inside the forest should be in compliance with the rules.

Responsible tourism
“Our approach should be that of responsible eco-tourism,” says former principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Ravi Ralph. “It is only by creating awareness on  the importance of forest and wildlife that we can protect these natural resources, and one of the best ways of doing this is by introducing people to forests and helping them understand the natural habitat and behaviour of wild animals,” he says.

Ravi adds that each forest has its own tourists’ carrying capacity and there is a need for regular surveys to assess the total number of tourists who can be allowed inside the forest at a given time. Several studies have shown that the presence of excess humans inside the forest has an adverse impact on the animals.

Ajay Dubey, whose public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court (SC) resulted in the formation of guidelines for tiger safari in India, says that his efforts were not to prevent tourists entering forest but to set rules for ethical and lawful tourism. “We should give topmost priority for the rights of speechless animals, especially the predators, during safaris,” he said.

Based on his PIL, the Supreme Court set strict rules including specifying the total core area allotted for safari (maximum of 20% of total forest area and minimum of five per cent), the dos and don’ts for the visitors of safari park. The SC guidelines state that all the visitors should be sensitised about the rules before entering safari, entry into safari should be allowed through  eco-friendly vehicles only, no visitor should be allowed inside the safari park on foot under any circumstance, or allowed to carry any forest product (dead or alive) from the reserve forest.

Krupakar B S, renowned wildlife documentary maker, says that revenue is very important for conservation and maintenance of forest assets and one of the main financial sources for the Forest Department is safari. “Laws in India are very strong, however, it all depends on the individual officer posted in the forest to enforce the laws. Currently, only 10% of the total forest area is open for the tourists in the State, which is a very small portion compared to remaining core area. We have to make sure that the public becomes a part of conservation efforts,” he states.

“I can vouch for the Forest Department in Karnataka in the sense that utmost priority is being given to follow the rule book,” Ravi says. Several experts opine that while safaris in the national parks in South India are conducted in compliance with the government rules, the same can’t be said about the national parks in North and West India.

Santosh Martin, a Ballari-based environmentalist, argues that by letting tourists venture into a small portion of the forest, we have restricted the forest officials to concentrate only on that demarked area. The argument that by letting tourists inside the forest, the officials are succeeding in controlling poaching and other illegal activities, does not hold any substance as poachers are or may be active in the non-tourists zones.

“Kaziranga National Park in Assam is the best example for this. Despite the national park opening its doors for tourists, poaching of rhinos has continued unabated. Normally, forest officials get information about illegal activities inside the forest through forest guards or the local people,” explains Santosh. 

Joseph Hover, a member of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board, is against tourists venturing into forest even under the guidance of forest guards. “Apart from increasing the carbon footprint inside the forest area, the tourists are doing no good to the forest,” he says and adds that the number of people visiting the forest with the idea of protecting the wildlife is very less. “There have also been incidents, where based on the locations tagged by ‘camera-toting Facebook-inspired environmentalists’, the poachers have been successful in laying a trap for the animals,” he says.

Most of the canter and jeep drivers, who ply tourists inside the forest, are well versed with the forest and its inhabitants. Patient ears to their words would really serve the purpose with which the safaris are arranged. However, most of the visitors do not do so; for them, bravado matters over the concerns of the environment.

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