• Soubhagya Katti


Most of us love traveling and have it in our bucket-list to at least visit one of the most beautiful sites in the world. But, it is crucial that we shift ourselves from the normal-travel to ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’; which is ecotourism indeed. It involves uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.

Conservation can be benefitted by using informed travel decisions, sensitivity and curiosity about the culture and way of life of communities, reducing our carbon footprint and living with local communities can also automatically contribute to leading a more sustainable lifestyle. Seeing wildlife in their natural landscape makes for an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and by choosing responsible travel, tourists can play a central role in protecting wildlife and their habitats. Moreover, local communities, especially those that do not thrive by industrial means, could benefit greatly from tourists who respect their lands while providing additional funding leading to a mean of earning a livelihood for local communities in forest and biodiversity-rich areas. Conservation of tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, important bird species, and other forms of wildlife is highly dependent on ecotourism.

It is known that tourism inevitably leads to development especially in ecotourism efforts. When natural areas become popular in the travel industry, they usually become the site of hotels, excavations and other tourist industry activities. These activities sometimes displace indigenous groups and local people from their homeland, which not only damages the integrity of those local communities, but also prevents its members from benefiting from the economic benefits of a growing tourism industry. The industry takes a toll on surrounding wildlife and natural resources, affect soil quality and plant life in general, damages the area’s overall ecosystem. Studies show that Shimla, Spiti, and Ladakh have faced water crises due to over usage of water by the hotels (travelers) than the local household of that region.

Another type of ecotourism that emphasizes the development of local communities and allows for local residents to have substantial control over, and involvement in, its development and management is called Community-based ecotourism. In these ecotourism centers, local residents share the environment and their way of life with visitors, while increasing local income and building local economies. A successful model of community-based tourism works with existing community initiatives, utilizes community leaders, and seeks to employ local residents so that income generated from tourism stays in the community and maximizes local economic benefits.

Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is one such Community-based ecotourism site. Pardhis are a nomadic community that have been practicing shikar (hunting) and hired as hunters, those are found mostly in Maharashtra and parts of Madhya Pradesh these days. Between 2004-08, it was found that tigers had become locally extinct in Rajasthan’s Sariska and Madhya Pradesh’s Panna National parks, primarily due to poaching. The Pardhi community came under scrutiny, and in 2007, many of its members were caught in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat for tiger and lion hunting. After losing all its tigers in 2009, these big cats were brought back to Panna Tiger Reserve under the sparkling leadership of the then Field Director, R Sreenivasa Murthy. ‘Walk with the Pardhis’ is an initiative undertaken by Last Wilderness Foundation in association with Taj Safaris and the Forest Department at Panna Tiger Reserve for training the local hunting tribe to showcase their amazing talent and earn from it, which also provide an alternative to poaching by teaching them fine guiding techniques that enhances their already existing knowledge of the bio-diversity; hence defines the future conservation in the forest. A short film is also made on the journey of LWF which specifies that initiative is also bound to help reconnect with the wilderness, as well as help ‘read’ the forest as the Pardhis do; experiential walk in the wilderness with the people of the forest.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ztfx24bbOQ

Singvhung Bugun Village Community Reserve: West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh, officially declared in 2017, inhibited by the Buguns (formerly Khowa) which is one of the earliest recognized scheduled tribes of India, with a total population of around 3000. Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary also lies in the same area, known to have a population of Bugun Liocichla, a highly endemic species of birds, whose discovery started a cascade of rising conservation activities, culminating in the declaration of a brand-new community reserve in 2017. The forests surrounding Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Himalayan foothills of West Kameng district, are legally owned by the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department. But as is the case in much of northeast India, the indigenous tribes living around Eaglenest claim de facto ownership of most forests falling outside formally designated protected areas, relying on customary rights and traditional boundaries to demarcate land between and within tribes. Dr. Ramana Athreya, the person who described the Bugun Liocichla, wanted to launch a community ecotourism project, and did so by laying out his plan in a meeting about setting up a ‘commercial bird tourism enterprise’ that would be completely community-run and hoped to show the Bunguns that conservation could be a profit generating business. In 2004, it was conceptualized by Mr. Indi Glow. Fourteen years later, the enterprise, now run entirely by Glow and his staff from nearby villages, continues to turn a profit, with annual revenue of around 5 million rupees. The bird tourism business also generates employment and other business opportunities for people living in nearby areas. Mr. Millo Tasser, the then DFO of Shergaon Forest Division, along with researchers Dr. Umesh Srinivasan and Dr. Nandini Velho, recognised the value of community-led conservation of the precious biodiversity of the area, and found out that the patch of the forest where the Bungun Liocihla was discovered, was under of the control of the Bunguns and did not have legal protection. After researching to knowing that the forest was a home to many endemic and threatened species such as the red panda (threatened), golden cat and marbled cat, helped shape the idea of declaring the area as a community reserve. It is said that the committee has the indigenous community as well as from the forest department included and has been awarded the Indian biodiversity award in 2018. “The Bugun and the Liocichla”, a short film made by Shaleena Phinya, a Bugun filmmaker and member of the forest patrolling team, tells the story of the team under the leadership of Mr. Millo Tasser. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLkLxoXWmIw

Mangalajodi Ecotourism trust is situated in Mangalajodi, a village under Tangi block in Khordha district of Odisha at the northern edge of the well-known bird and biodiversity hotspot Chilika Lake, Asia’s largest brackish water lake. It is known to have lagoonal characteristics as it hosts about 160 species of birds in the peak migratory season that usually arrive in the middle of October. As the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in the Indian subcontinent, it is home to a number of threatened species of plants and animals and acts as an ecosystem with large fishery resources also sustaining more than 150,000 fisher–folk living in 132 villages on the shore and islands. Mangalajodi was the quiet and murky bird poacher’s den until 20 years ago since most of the villagers were engaged in poaching, usually poisoning or shooting the birds and later selling them to the dhabas and in other cities. Unfortunately, the land came under the revenue department, and the forest department had limited powers which aided the people to continue poaching. It is also known that a proficient poacher once earned Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 40,000 annually in the mid-90s—a profitable proposition hard to let go, which led to a gradual decrease in the migratory birds that flew to the region. In the year 1997, a visionary named Nanda Kishore Bhujabal decided to make an attempt to bring an end to poaching of birds. As a local belonging to the Tangi area, Bhujabal realised that the only way that a change could be brought about was by taking the villagers into confidence. So, he decided to personally renounce poaching and stood up to the most notorious poachers in the area, once even at knife point, ultimately creating the Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti (a bird protection collective) in 2000, which was the beginning of a long, painful transformation in the village. The prospects of a respectable lifestyle, where they weren’t treated like thieves and earned a legitimate income from ecotourism appealed to the poachers. Several organizations (including Wild Orissa and Royal Bank of Scotland) joined hands to train the poachers to become birding guides, impart basic English skills and equip them with the ways of the hospitality industry - introducing the concept of ecotourism as a means to a sustainable livelihood for the locals. The Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust was formed, that aims to inspire, inform and enable communities to turn ecosystems into a sustainable source of livelihood through well managed low impact tourism instead of exploiting them for short term profits, which has now won several prestigious awards, including the Indian Responsible Tourism Award, UNWTO Award for innovation in Enterprise (2018), and the India Biodiversity Awards Runner Up (2014). 85 families in Mangalajodi make their living through tourism now. The Mangalajodi ecotourism trust is known to adhere to the basic ‘principles’ of ecotourism those are: using locally available resources to support infrastructure, interactive interpretation wherein a part of the revenue is generated to aid as revenue to support community conservation efforts, promoting local culture and sustainable way of living.

Great Himalayan national park was set up in 1984, officially declared a national park in 1999 wherein, two wildlife sanctuaries: Sainj (90 sq km) and Tirthan (61 sq km) together they form the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, spanning over 905.4 sq km. On 24 June, 2014, the UNESCO decided to put the GHNP on the World Heritage List following a criteria as in the area is located within a significant ecoregion, protects part of Conservation International’s Himalaya “biodiversity hotspot” and is part of the Birdlife International’s Western Himalaya Endemic Bird Area. The Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area is known to be home to 805 vascular plant species, 192 species of lichen, 12 species of liverworts and 25 species of mosses. Some 58% of its angiosperms are endemic to the Western Himalayas. The property also protects around 31 species of mammals, 209 birds, 9 amphibians, 12 reptiles and 125 insects. It provides habitat for 4 globally threatened mammals, 3 globally threatened birds and a large number of medicinal plants. The protection of lower altitude valleys provides for more complete protection and management of important habitats and endangered species such as the Western Tragopan and the Musk Deer. More than 15,000 residents of 160 villages in the buffer zone are dependent on GHNP’s natural resources. Earlier, the area was free of human habitation but local people moved in and out of the area to graze their sheep, goats and to collect herbs. In 1999, the administration paid Rs 1.8 crore to 369 families to settle these rights and the forest administration began income generation programs that subsequently, many villagers benefitted from alternative livelihood activities, particularly ecotourism. Poaching of endangered pheasants and animals such as the western tragopan, monal, musk deer, black bear, ghoral etc was also prevalent in the area. However, with the coming of Sunshine Himalayan Adventures as an ecotourism operator, things changed and soon poachers became protectors. The ecotourism program continues to develop a paradigm wherein local villagers actually benefit from having their ancestral lands turned into a wilderness preserve. Part of the plan is to train local youth in bird watching and trekking so that more resources become available to them than ever in the past while wild nature is preserved for posterity. The locals also initiated an NGO called Sahara for women’s social empowerment by training them for ecotourism, organic farming, knitting, etc.

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded Community-Based Tourism (CBT) project run by the Himachal Pradesh tourism department since 2015, under the guidance of Ankit Sood who has designed the training curriculum, imparts free training in tourism-related skills like the basics of rock climbing, rappelling, river-crossing, ice-craft, and survival in high-altitude areas, and also an 18-day trekking guide course, which is being implemented in 14 panchayats across six districts wherein, 1,400 people have been trained. He has also roped in the forest department, fisheries department and the department of language, art and culture to start short courses in wildlife, birdwatching, angling, and herit