A tale between the lens and wildlife

The Guiding Light

SANCTUARY ASIA (June 2011)
By Shivang Mehta

An early morning safari in February at the Kaziranga National Park. Within 20 minutes of entering the eastern range, a pair of one-horned rhinos capture my attention. As I visualise an angle to photograph the magnificent armour-coated mammals, three vehicles park themselves behind me. Within seconds I smell a familiar whiff and then see a piece of burning matchstick on the roadside. The driver in the vehicle behind me has lit his bidi and within minutes a couple of tourists are puffing their cigarettes. After the tobacco break, the driver conveniently chucks the remains of the nicotine stick on a patch of grassland just next to the road.

Cut to early March. I am in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve – a forest which is still coming to terms with the increasing tourist influx in recent years. My evening drive in the park is made memorable by a young male tiger right next to the road in the Tadoba zone. Slowly a chain of vehicles line up behind me. Since the road is cramped for space, one of the drivers goes off the road and parks in a small patch of the meadow to get a better view of the tiger. I could overhear the tourist in this vehicle asking the driver to inch closer to the cat and the guide (supposedly a custodian of the natural park) dutifully trying to comply.

These are just few of the many instances that I have witnessed during my forays in the forests of India that highlight why ground staff have to be sensitised to wildlife conservation needs as well as empowered to take stern measures against indisciplined visitors. Commercially viable and mature forests such as Corbett, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore have a significant number of guides and drivers who over the years have interacted with tourists from all walks of life and can hold their own against tourists and exercise control over them on a game drive. A sensitive or ‘evolved’ wildlife afficiando would rightly consider the behaviour of the boorish as disturbing, even irritating. It is imperative therefore that the Forest. Department and tourism professional link up to impart high quality training to their tourism-related staff on a regular basis.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, experienced guides and drivers must be used to train the fresher, less experienced lot. Training is critical for building the intellectual capacity of this cadre, which is why many professionally-managed private wilderness properties are increasingly hiring their own naturalists to improve guiding standards.

The quality of ground staff in national parks also has a direct impact on conservation. Ironically, a fragmented approach toward conservation seldom works. The need of the hour is for the authorities of all national parks to be guided by uniform code of conduct and rules that must keep protection at the core and enhanced visitor experience a part and parcel of wildlife tourism objectives. Such simple steps would deliver us nature guides who see themselves as custodians of India’s natural heritage and this can only be good for conservation.

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