- 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.
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 heritage tourism in Tirthan. “Government-certified courses increase the chances of professional employability. In our training modules, we’re laying a special emphasis on solid waste management to create sustainable models of tourism,” said Sood. Besides CBT, GHNP Community-based Ecotourism Cooperative Society in Nohanda, which has 65 members, jointly manages tourist activity and 10 percent of the earnings are deposited in a cooperative bank, while the profits are distributed equally to all the members.
This documentary, titled “Voices and Choices”, tells the story of GHNP and its locals: https://vimeo.com/106513350
Periyar Tiger Reserve encompasses 777 sq km, including a 26-sq-km 1895 artificial lake created by the British in Kerala, which became Kerala's first tiger reserve in 1978 shelters wild boar, sambar, bison, langur, 2000 elephants and 35 to 40 hard-to-spot tigers. In 1994, then a range forest officer with Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Kerala, Raju K. Francis arrested elusive forest brigand Aruvi, the leader of a 23-member team of wildlife poachers and sandalwood, from a hideout near an ancient cave in Theni district of Tamil Nadu, where local gangs used to hide smuggled sandalwood operating from K.G. Patti, Varusanadu and Lower Gudalur regions of Theni, which were around 20 kilometres from PTR. When Aruvi was nabbed along with one of his accomplices, Francis asked him why he continued forest plundering activities despite there being a number of criminal cases pending against him. Aruvi’s answer was simple and thought-provoking: “Loss of livelihood and criminal stigma attached to our clan by the officials over the years are forcing us to engage in such illegal activities. We are ready to lay down the arms if you are ready to give us decent jobs which can ensure a stable monthly income,” he said. The forest departments and experts in the field they set up Vidiyal Vanapathukappu Sangam, which they described as an eco-development committee, and then sent the 23 people underwent a three-month training period to carry out patrols and anti-poaching activities as well as participating in the local tourism industry through safaris, bamboo-rafting in the Thekkadi Lake inside Periyar and as tourist guides. They also helped crack over 230 cases of poaching and smuggling in PTR alone. Every month, they work for 26 days for a gross salary of Rs. 22,000. The Periyar Tiger Foundation which operates eco-tourism in PTR is providing them with raincoats, sleeping bags, uniforms and umbrellas.
Vidiyal, a film by Raju K Francis, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Kerala, tells the story of the Vidiyal Vanapathukappu Sangam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBH97A8D2iM
Kalinje is a village in Shrivardhan taluka in Raigad district, Maharashtra known for its rich in biodiversity and coastal creek and green mangroves. In order to create employment as well as conserve the precious mangroves of the area, the Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra Forest Department decided to start an ecotourism initiative named Kalinje Ecotourism for the upliftment of local communities and promotion of mangrove and marine biodiversity conservation. The Foundation offered training sessions for the locals for a period of six months at village mangrove sites; Harihareshwar and Shrivardhan beaches. On December 6, 2019, the team led 130 tourists from Mumbai on a Mangrove trail, while around 30 villagers showed interest and took the initial training, 10 have become part of the tourism circuit. The first four women lead the mangrove trail, bird watching, and traditional fishing. Two men received training from the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa for Mangrove kayaking and the remaining four take tourists on a boat safari. After realizing that the younger generation is moving to Mumbai in search of employment, the Mangrove Foundation is also promoting the ecotourism project as an employment generation scheme. For every trail like bird watching, a traditional fishing tour cost ranges between Rs 100 and Rs 250, depending on the group size and activities included, which is directly earned by the team. In a bid to tap into more tourists and involve villagers as well, the Mangrove cell started a village home-stay for Rs 500 per night per person. It also started serving local food delicacies with unlimited serving of veg and non-veg food for Rs 125 and Rs 175, respectively. These employment schemes have proved to be a pavement for learning for many people including women who have neither undergone schooling nor do they have any idea about talking in English, as the training sessions train them thoroughly educating them which indeed helps those who wish to grow, grow. The state is also in the process of developing an eco-tourism circuit connecting nearly 350 locations and starting boat safari in Kalinje.
Ladakh forms part of the trans-Himalayas, a vast area of high altitude semi-desert and steppe, constitutes over 80% of the trans-Himalayan tract in India. The region is famous for being home to the elusive snow leopard, which is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because the global population is estimated to number less than 10,000 mature individuals and only about 200-600 in India, according to the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) India Trust. Snow leopards are hunted for its pelt and body parts. The Snow Leopard Conservancy began by encouraging locals to participate in planning and to find solutions, thus drawing on traditional knowledge regarding livestock movements, depredation hotspots and finding cost effective solutions for predator proofing corrals. In the years that followed, predator proofing measures resulted in reduction of livestock losses within corrals. However, herders continued to suffer losses when livestock were free ranging, and hence snow leopards continued to be seen as a pest. Using a highly participatory method of Appreciative Participatory Planning and Action (APPA), villagers decided on Homestays as their venture since they found out tourism to be a viable option. Himalayan Homestays Program (HHP) was launched in several valleys of Leh by the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust in 2002 providing locals an opportunity to earn an additional source of income by hosting tourists. Locals were trained in housekeeping while youth acquired skills as guides to lead nature tours, which included possible sightings of the charismatic snow leopards. The program enabled tourists to learn about local culture first-hand, generate income that offsets livestock loss to snow leopards, thereby improving people's attitude towards this otherwise despised cat.
According to Rinchen Wangchuk, Programme Director and Founder of SLC-IT: The HHP fosters conservation-based community managed tourism development in remote settlements, by gradually building local capacity and ownership. It stands out as an ideal example that aims to be sensitive to both host and visitor expectations without compromising the aspirations of host communities, and at the same time seeks to balance these aspects with conservation of the area’s unique cultural and natural heritage. The homestays seek to positive interactive cultural experiences for both the host and visitor; contribute to conserving local cultural and natural heritage, making sure that a percentage of the earnings go towards conservation activities such as livestock insurance, garbage management, and reducing human-wildlife conflict. To create a viable community-owned venture, the process involved is a five step process; Community mobilization, assessment of client demand & interest, focus on Conservation Linkages, community-wide benefit sharing and conservation Funds. The team focused on three types of values: intrinsic, instrumental and economic. The results revealed that those who participated in the HHP (19) by hosting visitors felt a higher responsibility for wildlife compared with non-participants. They placed high instrumental value on wildlife, noted by the frequent mentions of the beauty of snow leopards during the interviews as well as a sense of pride and happiness in spotting wildlife in groups. Even those who did not directly participate by hosting visitors but had the HHP established in their community appreciated snow leopards. In contrast, most villagers in communities without the HHP, or other initiatives, expressed neutral or negative feelings towards wildlife, particularly frustration towards snow leopards, arising mainly from livestock depredation. The local communities are now known to be calling snow leopards as the “ornaments of our mountains”. The household income is believed to have risen by 35-75% primarily due to homestays, owned and managed by women. The added income from homestays contributes toward a community conservation fund and increased village awareness with the initiation of local projects such as garbage management, livestock insurance, and the creation of a grazing reserve for the threatened Tibetan Argali. The locals find the environmental benefits, with less non-biodegradable waste discharge due to low demands for plastic water bottles. All the villages chosen for the Homestay programme are located in or close to prime snow leopard habitats of the Hemis National Park, Sham, Zanskar and Spiti. In a span of six years, the Himalayan Homestays Program has transformed attitudes towards the snow leopard from that of a pest to an invaluable tourism asset worth more alive than dead. The number of snow leopard sightings has increased concurrently, with prey populations remaining stable or increasing. Himalayan Homestays has been awarded the following:
2004 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award at the World Travel Market
2005 Global Vision Award for Community Outreach and Responsible Tourism
2008 Finalists in the Geotourism Challenge by National Geographic's Centre for Sustainable Destinations and Ashoka Changemakers
2013 Favourite Responsible Tourism Initiative Award by Outlook Traveller magazine
2018 TOFTiger Wildlife Tourism Award for Community Based Tourism Initiative of the Year
2018 Adventure Travel Conservation Fund Grant Winner
In the above examples of community based ecotourism sites, we have seen how helpful it has been for the flora, fauna as well as the humans. Thus, it is important that ecotourism be localized as much as possible - that is, ecotourism must be spearheaded and led by local communities for it to be sustainable and support communities.
Drop your go-to ecotourism site or the transition story that inspired you in the comment section below!