“You are a guest of nature… behave!”
– Friedensreich Hundertwasser
India is a universe unto itself. Within our borders exist almost every known habitat type on planet earth, from frozen ‘wastes’ to blazing deserts, dripping rainforests to boggy swamps, corals and coasts, to swaying grasslands. It stands to reason, therefore, that domestic and overseas visitors will flock to these natural wonderlands. This presents India with an incredible opportunity to educate a large number of humans on the finer points of nature conservation, even as we take advantage of their presence to create economic opportunities for locals and win support for the protection of our amazing natural heritage.
Of course, there was a time when virtually all Indians knew and respected the ways of nature. In recent times, however, we have perceptibly distanced ourselves from our roots. Unless we visibly demonstrate our own care and concern for rivers, forests and wildlife, guests from distant shores are unlikely to respect or protect what is precious.
Major efforts are also on to establish new and creative ways to build bridges between environmentalists and sensible tourism professionals. This process has, of course, been on for quite some time. Each week, for instance, dedicated individuals in virtually every large Indian city use nearby wilderness areas – Borivali in Mumbai, Bannerghatta in Bangalore, the Ridge and the Jamuna wetlands in New Delhi, Guindy in Chennai – to take young people out on nature walks and trails.
In habitats as far removed as the Valley of Flowers, Lakshadweep, Ranthambhore, Kaziranga and Gir, perhaps over half a million tourists renew their bonds with nature each year. It is crucial that such seekers of green horizons are provided with ‘satisfying and moving visitor experiences’. Given the sheer pace of change on the Indian subcontinent that began in the 1990s and continues unabated, wildlife conservationists and tourism professionals both realise that they can no longer afford the luxury of hurling blame or accusations at each other, even as species, destinations and societies crumble.
There is an Indian saying that is particularly appropriate to the issue of wildlife tourism: Na rahe baans, na baje bansuri – when the bamboo is exhausted, you won’t hear the flute. Valmik Thapar, the tiger defender, has been speaking along such lines for some time now. According to him: “Wildlife tourism should not just exploit an opportunity, but must add to the wilderness values, without which visitors will never be drawn to destinations. In the Indian context, this might mean helping to turn revenue lands to wild habitats so that they can sustain wild animal populations, as has successfully been done by South Africa and Kenya.”
Not long ago, tourism projects were perceived as threats to several wildernesses. Clearly, with changed attitudes, greater sensitivity and heightened public opinion, greater synergy between wildlife authorities and tourism professionals is a distinct possibility. Tourism project proponents, for instance, used to push for facilities inside the heart of sanctuaries. Today it is clear at the outset itself that new facilities will be located outside ‘Protected Area’ boundaries. This works to everyone’s advantage, because there is an incentive for the owners of tourism facilities to help park managements to protect and restore wild habitats, thus ‘inviting’ wildlife right into their ‘backyards’.
In conclusion, it should be stated that the scope for wildlife tourism in India has never been quite as good as it is today. What is more, the sheer diversity of habitats and cultures makes it possible for India to offer incredible choices to potential visitors. What remains to be seen is whether the good people in both the tourism and wildlife sectors can combine strengths to the advantage of the wilderness and those who wish to celebrate the gifts of nature ‘on site’.