Jungle Lodges' monopoly hurting Karnataka wildlife tourism

Given the hustle-bustle of city life, many people dream of an occasional visit to a forest nearby and some peace. Who does not want to see a tiger, leopard or an elephant. They are such amazingly beautiful animals that humans fall in love with them instantly. But is wildlife tourism affordable to a common man or is it meant only for the super-rich in Karnataka?

Natural resources are not exclusively for the rich. All have an equal right to relish them. But, there is no equitable platform for the rich and the poor for wildlife tourism in Karnataka. The Karnataka government has made wildlife tourism affordable only to the super-rich.

Wildlife tourism in Karnataka has been partly vested with the forest department. The forest department is overburdened with its core work, and wildlife tourism is a non-core activity for them. Wildlife enthusiasts who aren't rich enough to afford a safari all to themselves have to take the ones provided by the forest department. These drives are usually in outdated, poorly maintained vehicles, mostly without a guide/naturalist, and the driver himself doubles up as one. A safari by bus takes the wildlife lover into the forest for 90 minutes, for which the forest department charges about Rs 350 per person per ride. The same safari in an exclusive Gypsy will cost around Rs 3,000.

What's the alternative? The answer rests with Jungle Lodges & Resorts (JLR). A venture of the Government of Karnataka, whose accommodations and hospitality only the super-rich can afford. A stay in a JLR tent at Kabini costs Rs 11,535 per person per night. JLR has also adopted dynamic pricing, wherein prices go up during festive seasons, weekends and year-ends, putting it even further out of reach for most wildlife lovers. JLR does not allow safari for walk-in customers, it is reserved for only those who are staying with them. Those staying with other registered resorts can go on a safari with JLR, but only in one of its buses. The exclusive jeep safari eludes them. In other words, one cannot get a satisfying wildlife safari unless one can pay to stay at JLR's high-priced resort.

Raw deal

Is this so in other states in the country, too? No. State governments all over the country have ensured that the forest department concentrates on protecting and managing the forest. Wildlife safaris are not vested with one monopolistic institution anywhere in India, except Karnataka.

Wildlife safaris across India, except in Karnataka, are conducted by permit system. Any individual interested in visiting the jungle has to book a permit online. In some highly-regarded tiger reserves, the payment for this could go up to a maximum of Rs 1,000. Usually, the costs are far less at around Rs 300 per permit. Locals are enrolled as guides, who get a sum of Rs 350 as remuneration per safari. Gypsy jeeps are available at the gates of these forests for about Rs 2,000. The total cost thus runs to about Rs 3,350 per gypsy per safari for 6 people, or Rs 558 per person.

But in Karnataka, despite spending a bomb, wildlife buffs are given a raw deal. Safari timings in Karnataka are a joke. Entry during morning hours is at 6.30 am and exit is at 9 am. Entry during evening is at 4 pm and exit at 6.30 pm. In all, its two hours and 30 minutes each in the morning and evening. A wildlife lover is deprived not only in terms of money but also in terms of time. Safaris in forests in other states start at around 5 am in the morning and end at 10 am. In the afternoon, safaris start around 3 pm and end around 7 pm, a total of eight hours a day.

In Karnataka, locals who live on the edges of forests, have no other source of earning. Even their fields get invaded many a times by wild animals resulting in loss of crops and sometimes lives as well. Quite often, we see that the forest department is up in arms against the locals. Many a times animals are poached, forests are set on fire, etc.

Locals must be able to make a living, using the forest as a means, rather than being treated as enemies of the forest, as is the case with the forest department's monopoly and the JLR set up. A local who is employed as a guide or naturalist or a driver will have more reasons to protect the forest than indulging in destroying it. The employment of villagers in the vicinity of forests will reduce conflicts between man and animals.

This apart, the entry for tourists is only from one point in the forests in Karnataka, unlike in forests in other states. If more entry points are provided to the forest, villagers all around the forest would get opportunities to make a living out of the forest.

The government, unfortunately, is neither thinking on these lines nor making any efforts to engage locals in tourism, which will only widen the rift between the stakeholders rather than bringing them together in an inclusive approach, which is much needed for tourism to thrive. It is hence time for the government to shun this monopolistic approach adopted in wildlife tourism and give ample scope and encouragement to the villagers in the vicinity of the forests to make a living out of the forest rather than pushing them to damage the forests and wildlife.

(The writer is an advocate based in Bengaluru)

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