The wildlife tourism season in India lasts around nine months, from the beginning of October to the end of June. In July, when the monsoon season begins, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries close their doors to visitors. When they reopen in October, tourists, eager to taste the wilderness, return by the thousands.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has dulled the enthusiasm of tourists and has had a crippling effect on the wildlife tourism industry. Since the announcement of the national lockdown at the end of March 2020, the sector has experienced colossal devastation. The lockdown coincided with the peak wildlife tourism months of April and May. Parks across the country have been closed for two months, and even though they have reopened, tourists remain wary of traveling. “People dependent on tourism are unemployed. They are in debt, ”says Aditya Panda, an environmentalist and professional safari operator who organizes wildlife tours, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Rajasthan.
This is something I too saw with my own eyes on a trip to Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks in Madhya Pradesh at the end of October. Before the pandemic, there would be around 30 safari vehicles per zone (Bandhavgarh has three main zones and Kanha four) in the parks. Local guides say the figure is now less than half, even on weekends.
Foreign tourists have disappeared, as has the cheetah of the Indian jungles. “Tourist visas are not issued,” Panda says, adding that most of its clientele come from abroad. Foreign tourists are the real spenders: they stay longer, tip more and go on several safaris. “Foreign tourists spend more than local tourists, 10 to 1,” Panda says. “India could have followed the example of countries like Kenya and Nepal where foreign tourists were tested upon arrival. We have given up on the 2020-21 season, ”he adds.
Most of the tourists coming to Kanha and Bandhavgarh come from Madhya Pradesh or the adjacent states of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. These visitors descend from places like Katni, Satna, Rewa, Umaria, Jabalpur, Raipur and Nagpur, many of them taking only a day’s break.
Sonu Barman, guide and driver at Bandhavgarh National Park, says: “poor business down hai (Business has bottomed out) “. Barman, who has been a guide for 20 years, says he’s never seen such a situation before. During peak wildlife season, he was earning around ??25,000 per month for its services; it is now at ??5,000 to ??8,000 per month. The guides and drivers of the safari vehicles, who are mostly from the local community, have turned to agriculture to support their meager fortunes. Those who don’t have a farm live hand to mouth, waiting for their turn to guide the daily list, he says.
The effect is also harsh on wildlife tour operators. Over the past decade, India has seen a proliferation of operators offering specialized safaris to wildlife enthusiasts. Trips are tailor-made to visit areas teeming with tigers (Ranthambore, Kabini, Bandhavgarh, Tadoba), for bird watching (Saatal, Bharatpur, Munsiyari, Mishmi Hills), for snow leopard expeditions (Spiti, Hemis) or to other biodiversity hot spots (Kaziranga, Petit Rann de Kutchh). An incredible wildlife photography experience or simply the opportunity to meet India’s astonishing diversity of wildlife with knowledgeable experts is the promise these tour operators make to their potential clients. But this year, the activity has stopped. “The whole business is at a loss. Even now there is no income, ”says Bharat Goel, co-founder of Wildnest, a company specializing in wildlife tours. Goel laid off five people and the business is run by family members. “Income is down 80 to 90%,” he adds.
A priest puts “tilak” on an elephant before the start of a safari, after being closed since March due to the covid-19 pandemic, at Kaziranga National Park in Golaghat district in November. (Photo credit: PTI)
Siddhartha Sharma, founding member of The Nemophilist, a Maharashtra-based wildlife tour company, said that between October and December 2019, his company organized two game drives and four bird watching tours. This year, they have only made one tour so far in the same period, a road visit to Melghat and Tadoba tiger reserves. He canceled a tour of the Masai Mara in Kenya scheduled for August.
“The impact of covid-19 has gone beyond the wildlife tourism ecosystem, it has impacted wildlife as well,” Siddhartha said via email. “There has been an increase in the consumption of bushmeat – peacocks, jungle birds, squirrels, monitor lizards, anything that can be trapped by snares, everywhere – due to the loss of ground level wages. According to an article published in the The new Indian express in June, the increase in poaching during the coronavirus pandemic is due to “jobless people turning to wildlife for money and to feed their families.” The article says the increase in meat poaching during the pandemic is not limited to India, and several wildlife organizations around the world are concerned about the problem.
With little support from central or state government, in the form of a rebate from the GST or other concessions, operators are taking action to push back tourists. The Nemophilist, for example, began monitoring the temperature and oxygen readings of all participants a week before Melghat and Tadoba’s tour. “A medical certificate regarding the general fitness of each participant has also been made compulsory,” Sharma explains. Also in Kanha and Bandhavgarh, forestry staff recorded tourists’ temperatures and disinfected safari vehicles. “No masks, no entry” is the rule followed at these locations. “Smaller groups, three people per safari jeep instead of six and avoid crowded places throughout,” are some of the additional measures recommended by Panda.
Akshay Manwani is a freelance writer-author based in Mumbai. He tweets @AkshayManwani