The year 2016 was all about several lows (unfortunately) and a few highs for the environment. Across the globe, unethical tourism is still a major contributor to the lows. In India, it was no different — right from elephants found dead with plastic in their stomach (thanks to garbage dumping near National Parks) and death of selfie-crazed individuals in the hands of innocent wildlife to rise in wildlife mortality by greedy resort owners refusing to give up illegal properties. While it is lovely to get away from the mayhem of the city for a holiday to the quiet forests, what’s important is we keep it that way. Quiet, clean, and ensuring zero stress to wildlife.
In the past few months, there have been several incidents of ‘good day gone wrong’ night walks and treks reported in forest areas across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, these walks and treks are illegal and in the past, it has led to several untoward incidents from trekkers being lost in the forest to most importantly, disturbing and stressing wildlife. Many have even lost their lives after being attacked by elephants. The animals are innocent, it is we who are trespassing!
If you googled for ‘New Year 2017 parties’, you would have found links to activities like night treks (closer to forests) and even night safaris. If walks or drives are not carried out within the premise of private properties and encourage ‘encounters in the forest’ — please resist bookings with such commercial establishments. This is crass tourism at its best.
One of the travellers who visited
Masinagudi in Tamil Nadu recently was appalled with the state of affairs. A tourist, unaware of the actual plan, agreed to go on a night safari, encouraged by an amateur wildlife photographer and a few common friends. The so-called drive turned out to a be a terrifying chase-down, sending herds of shocked wild elephants helter skelter. As the jeep driver chased elephants and gaurs, the tourist realised that they were not the only ones. “There were many other such jeeps with people revelling sickly on stressing and torturing these wild animals. It was depressing,” she recounts.
This is not an isolated incident. This year alone, over four to five national media articles have highlighted several such incidents in the South Indian forests. The very idea of us humans heading towards the forests to destress yet relishing the sight of stressed wildlife speaks of the plight of degenerating human condition.
On December 22, 2016, an 18-year-old boy was grievously injured in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, when he was trying to take a selfie with a herd of wild elephants. “In Nagarahole, I have witnessed several groups of people on many occasions taking selfies with wild elephants crossing the road. On other occasions, I have witnessed loud people frantically waving mobile phones a few feet away from gaurs, drunk men screaming at an oblivious wild tusker and even, a few young boys throwing stones at chital in Bandipur,” recounts Kaushik Bajibab, a naturalist.
It’s important to note that these interactions in the wild leave a lasting impression upon people, and that’s why safaris (could be a person’s first wildlife experience) need to be highly regulated and guided intelligently. Once, I watched helplessly as four jeeps (manned by independent safari drivers with guests) stalled, revving their loud jeeps blocking a herd of elephants from crossing the road in Mudumalai. The nervous, highly anxious herd waited by the side of road.
Finally, the matriarch mock charged, and the four jeeps moved away — only to come back revving loudly at the elephants again. Unfortunately, this may have been the very first safari experience for many people on those jeeps — and they might have walked away thinking it’s absolutely normal to drive so close to an elephant herd. Regrettably, the learnings are not just erroneous but have proved to be very costly to both wildlife and humans.
Not ruling out such misbehaviour and incidents in forest areas, the forest departments are also doing their part to ensure safety for wildlife and man in reserves. “We have 50 anti-poaching camps and over 100 volunteers from the Special Tiger Protection Force that patrol forest areas,” says T Heeralal, director of Bandipur Tiger Reserve. “We also have volunteers warning people from stalling, against feeding and taking photographs. There will be a briefing before every safari and we will ensure the driver will be assisted by a forest staff on the safari.” The briefing also touches upon the ‘leave no trace’ attitude, encouraging people not to throw any trash. Recently, the photo of a wild tiger being blocked off by hungry tourists on jeeps from all sides in Corbett for better photo-ops sent out the same message again. Today, more than ever, we need to get our forest etiquette right.
Wild animals are very sensitive to loud noise. We make them anxious and they fear for their young ones. The least we can do is let them be. Watching wildlife from a safe distance without making any noise is what safari is all about. It should not be about whistling at them, cooing to grab their attention and flash photography is incredibly wrong. If you are a witness to wildlife being stressed by jeep drivers on a safari, or unethical resort or tour operators, notify the forest department.
Those who seek these scared patches of forests as a temporary abode need to truly treat it like one. By doing so, you can await a better experience the next time you visit: the wildlife will be less stressed and you can get a better viewing. You really do get to taste the peace that’s a forest – and that’s how you de-stress.
The article was published in the Deccan Herald