Monday, October 30, 2017

Wild Life Without Wild Lifers!

“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.”... Steve Irwin.

Stephen Robert Irwin, nicknamed "The Crocodile Hunter", was an Australian zookeeper, conservationist and television personality; he is the man who made common people all around the world to love wild life by his exceptionnal shows on Nat Geo channel & what an irony that he met his death during shooting of one such show by Sting Ray fish! That's dedicating life for wild life conservation in true sense & its people like Steve whose death also has contributed to wild life conservation & that’s exactly his above words about making common man aware regarding wild life is what made me use his reference to start my sharing. Like some reality TV show come October & that’s new season for wild life in India as the parks reopens for tourism post monsoon & as I have already shared, forests in Central India are probably at their best, fresh with monsoons effect! Though I never need any reason to visit forests yet when the reason is doing my little bit for ground staff at forests then visiting forests become more beautiful as well meaningful. This time we provided 125 winters wear for Pench MP forest guides as well gate staff & 175 such for Tadoba guides as well gate staff. AT both ends the sweaters were handed over to the guides & gate staff in a small cozy function with help of respective officers at both parks!

Seeing the joy on the faces of guide & after hearing praise for my team for donating sweaters, speaking at both events I told to those men who are actual savers of the tiger, that it’s not big thing to give & it’s not donation but its sharing for us, & what I wanted to share is a feeling that in the tough job of saving the forests you are not alone! This sweater is like a memento which will tell you that your job is most important & someone outside the forests who lives in comforts of city life understands as well respect your job! Because if it’s difficult to save a tiger then it’s more difficult to show a tiger in the forest, as it’s the only intention with which most tourists visits forests & to stand to their expectation of showing a tiger is very difficult job which the forest guides has to do all year long, that’s the job of a guide in forests! And as I always said on one side entire wild life tourism of States like MP or Maharashtra or Karnataka is revolving around tiger sighting & then when the tourists comes to the forest, spends handsome amount as well time (this aspect will cover in detail) & if he or she don’t get to have a glimpse of tiger then how you are going to make this tourist like the forests, & then how you are going to support to conserve something which you haven’t liked in first place? 

Now coming to sighting (sighting is commonly used term for sighting of a tiger), I did nearly eleven safaris; seven at Pench MP & four at Tadoba, one safari is one round of forest which is in morning 6 am -10.30 am & in afternoon 3 pm -6 pm & in all eleven safaris all I got to see was a tiger cub crossing road, that’s all speaking about the sighting of tiger! Imagine the time, effort & costing involved & one has to wake up at 4.30 in morning to be at entry gate for morning safari. I have seen enough tigers by now & don’t visit forests just to see a tiger though the sight of those yellow & black stripes is always a welcome thing. What I wanted to put forward is harassment of the tourists (many my forest officer friends wont like the word harassment) in the name of tiger conservation. I don’t know who is at blame or fault or even my perception may be wrong but look at the hefty charges forest dept is applying per safari as well the other costs incurred such as gypsy charges & on the top of it getting a reservation for the safari & the procedures for entry in the park, you feel even getting in Pakistan is easier task! For e.g. take Pench praks entry seen, first you have to get online booking which gets full at the moment the booking is open. Then you need to be at the gate by 5 am even the gate opens at 6am because even you have got online booking done the verification process takes nearly an hour, god knows what the dept verifies when mostly all details can be done online itself! And then its double check at the gate also as even you get the entry form in print only after producing valid ID proof for each member of the safari yet again there is second gate where all these ID’s are checked by another official!

At Tadoba case is more stringent as every member in the gypsy has to make her or his hands up as the guard calls out for the name. Also system of allotting gypsy or guide is equally messy making drivers as well guides wait at the gate from 4.30 am in morning. The worst part is even if the online booking of a safari has been done on one name by paying full charges & in one safari six people can go, then all six the names should be confirmed only at the time of booking which is nearly three months in advance. Now when its students group then how can we assure names so early & behold, if you want to change the name or add some name at eleventh hour then you will have to pay Rs 1000 per name in addition to all the charges you have paid for safari! And then there are camera charges per camera as well guide charges on top of it, making wild life tourism only for super riches. Reason given by forest dept is tickets are black marketed by tour operators & sold at higher rates but then what about all the genuine tourists as well school kids trip organizers, why the majority has to suffer because of few wrong doers, is the question I will ask to the authorities? As we all have witnessed a black marketer finds ways even in this system as the one who is ready to pay premium he won’t mind paying even Rs 1000, to add the name but in the process its middle class which gets hit & deprived from seeing these forests is a bitter fact.  Then the entry rates have been increased nearly ten times in last ten years, one reason is because of Hon Supreme Court’s order, tourism has been restricted to only 20% of the forest area, causing curtailing of entry of gypsy’s by 80% & to cover these loss rates of entry has been increased by local authorities! Here I will ask, what is govt’s job, to make money or to assure this nature’s treasure gets available for every common citizen of this country? Same is with the charges applied for the safaris, why not all the National Parks in the country has one single charging system so it will be easy for the wild life tourists to plan their budgets as well trip. For e.g. take full day safari charges which varies with every park & not that it’s been doubled in just one year making forests accessible to only super riches of the country because a full day safari will cost nearly Rs 75,000 per day, imagine how many Indians can afford this amount! On this background, will like to share some information about USA’s national parks; there four national park’s entry permit costs just $80 which makes Rs 5600/- & this is for multiple entries valid for one year! Agreed USA is a rich country but they earn money from other avenues & not at the cost of depriving common citizen from nature conservation. High time our MOEF i.e. Ministry of Environment & Forests take cognizance of these facts & guide State Forest depts for doing needful.

When all the labyrinth of entry formalities are complete &  once you are in the park then the new sets of rules awaits for you, with due respect to forest dept’s intentions as well I too am a avid wild life lover yet lets understand, people come here to see wild life (read tiger & leopard) & we need to make policies by virtue of which the tourists will get to see what they want to see. As then only their interest in wild life will increase which is the key to make them aware about importance of wild life conservation. But the rules which welcomes us in the forests makes different story, speed limit is 20km/ hour, who designed it god knows! For instance you can’t get down the vehicle anywhere in the park even for nature’s call this I can understand considering safety of tourists from attack of wild animals. But there are no restrooms at all in many parks; rather in Pench park there is just one rest room at Alikatta (center point). When a tiger sighting is expected & if any tourist has to respond nature call then it’s at the cost of missing the tiger sighting as the poor fellow has to run back to a place where rest room is located! In my recent Tadoba trip similar incidence happened with none other than a Hon High court judge who missed tiger sighting because of nature call! I don’t say allow tourists to get down at anywhere in the park but at least we have numbers of forest guards residents all across the parks, why can’t we provide safe rest rooms to the tourists so they can enjoy their ride with some comfort?

One more issue is regulations (restriction is proper word) on the drivers as well guides. In Pench I came to know even on two way route you can’t take a U turn unless it’s a tiraha or chowk (a place where three or four roads meet). Means if a tiger or any photographic incident is happening behind your gypsy then you can U turn even keeping safe distance from the animal in sight but drive strait till you get a tiraha or chowk & then only turn back, ridiculous isn’t it? And then the latest development is all guides have been provided with GPS in their mobile to keep control on the speed of vehicle as well you are not supposed to stop more than fifteen minutes at place where tiger sighting is happening, is what few guides told me! And then ever changing routes as well blocking of the routes where tiger is being sighted regularly is one more popular game of forest dept or say park management. Also why we keep park close in monsoons; take example of main road of Tadoba which is in very good tarred condition, so let’s allow the tourists to use this road, which was open till last monsoon, but is suddenly closed from this season. Imagine with fear of getting fined as well getting banned in the minds of guides as well drivers, how they can show tourists the beauty of the forest with free mind, which is their main job! I am not in support of speeding of vehicles in any way but then the gypsy drivers also knows their responsibility while driving in park. Just look at the statistics in past & tell me a single incidence of accident of any wild animal in park due to tourist vehicle as every driver knows if such accident happens, that will be his last ride & that he can’t afford! Then why burden driver’s mind with GPS type gadgets, what are we running a park or a jail! All such things damages not just tourism but entire life cycle of thousands of people who are solely depending up on tourists as the gypsy drivers were practically on streets this monsoon for earning their wages due to park closer. And this is just one example, as with the reduction in numbers of safari permits as well high entry fees the only tourists which comes for here more than two or three safaris are from rich class & this has killed middle or lower budget hotels at all national park destinations across the country. Only the high end hotels are doing well which most people can’t afford. Rather we should try to keep open all our parks as much we can is what my opinion is because if we are not keeping people in & around forests comfortable by our tourism which is only way of earning for them, then these people are the best baits for poachers!

What are we heading at, is the question comes to my mind after experiencing above aspects of the national parks. As better here after we allow people to see a tiger or any wild life creature in the zoo only instead making visiting national parks so difficult that too after paying all possible charges. Agreed that forest dept’s intentions towards wild life conservation nobody doubts it’s the way which is a problem. We need to make every single person of this country understands importance of forests & contributes his or her best to conserve the wild life & for that we should make wild life accessible to every citizen as then only they will understand what to conserve!  As I mentioned I had eleven safaris without single tiger sighting yet I love forests & being in it but to reach this stage I have spent enough time & money in forests & has eyeful of tiger sightings in past. And it’s this exposure with forests which has taught me that being a wild lifer doesn’t mean just going to national parks, clicking snaps & uploading on FB & get likes; it’s what you do to conserve forests is what makes you a wild lifer.  I penned down my thoughts as somewhere someone in the system will think & act as that’s last hope for the common wild lifer as well for wild life in itself of this country!

Sanjay Deshpande 
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