- Dealing with environmental challenges and protests, ecotourism operators in several parts of India, have called for building community resilience as they take stock of losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Despite their losses, a section of ecotourism operators and grassroots conservation workers have risen up to the challenge of stopping further spread of the viral disease by conducting awareness campaigns for their local communities.
- While the pause on tourism will have a negative impact specially on the livelihoods of indigenous communities involved in ecotourism, those working in the industry agree it is a necessary step for the longterm and urge the government to consider financial support mechanisms following the pandemic.
Battling environmental challenges and protests, ecotourism operators in several parts of India, have called for building community resilience as they take stock of losses amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
And even as they learn to adapt to government-imposed temporary lockdowns that have hit their livelihood, a section of ecotourism operators and grassroots conservation workers involved in ecotourism have risen up to the challenge of stopping further spread of the viral disease by conducting awareness campaigns for their local communities.
More than 375,400 cases worldwide have been reported positive for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, since its occurrence was first reported from Wuhan in China late last year (2019). In India, as of March 25, there are 512 active COVID-19 cases reported and 9 deaths, as per the ministry of health and family welfare.
In the Sundarbans mangroves in West Bengal, poacher-turned-conservationist Anil Mistry has curtailed nature camps and other associated activities linked to ecotourism. Instead, he is actively involved in ensuring the flow of correct information to the island communities of the Sundarbans archipelago.
Sundarbans mangroves, the largest contiguous mangrove ecosystem in the world, stretches along the coast of Bangladesh (where 60 percent of the forest lies) and India (West Bengal). Natural resource-based livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing predominate in the Sundarbans that is home to 4.5 million people.
Mistry, a mangrove ecosystem conservationist who helps local communities in the Sundarbans adopt alternative livelihoods, including ecotourism, to ease pressure on forest resources and reduce human-wildlife conflicts, said communicating the correct information on the pandemic to the public in the remote islands is the major challenge.
The Sundarbans is home to the royal Bengal tiger that drives the tourism industry. According to a report, the revenue earned from Sundarban Tiger Reserve-centric ecotourism increased from Rs. 15.08 lakhs in the year 2003-04 to Rs. 183 lakhs in 2014-2015. But tourist footfall and revenues dipped to Rs. 34 lakhs during 2009-10 from Rs. 41.39 lakhs in 2008-09 after the occurrence of cyclone Aila in May, 2009.
Mistry, involved in the capture and release of 70 royal Bengal tigers in the last two decades, has restricted his movements to a bare minimum within his native Bali island, one of the 102 islands in the Indian Sundarbans.
“We are no longer holding meetings with local communities to discuss conservation efforts. We are discussing everything over the phone. If we receive information on tiger sightings in villages, we will attend to those urgent calls but we are avoiding anything non-essential,” said Mistry, founder of Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society, an NGO that works for the protection of the mangrove ecosystem.
According to Bengal government officials contacted by Mongabay-India, all entry points to the mangrove islands, are under vigilance, to deal with the influx of people (migrant returnees) who are returning to the delta as their work in other states halted temporarily post government-initiated lockdowns.
Mistry, who is also the principal field officer of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) in the Sundarbans, said community workers associated with conservation actions are calling up the island inhabitants and encouraging them to adopt hand wash regimen, stay indoors and practice social distancing.
“We do send text messages but calls are more effective because sometimes people ignore messages,” added Mistry.
Mistry believes that the local communities, on account of their weathering environmental stresses, including extreme weather events (the most recent one being tropical cyclonic storm Bulbul in November 2019), are quite resilient.
“But they do not help to deal with the pandemic which no one saw coming. While the local authorities have stepped up vigilance and are carrying out public announcements, we are bolstering the ongoing efforts in communication,” he added, welcoming the lockdown decision taken by the central and state governments.
Mistry informed that one of the immediate tasks on hand that they have taken up is to help out local authorities in identifying migrant returnees who may show symptoms of the infection.
“As of March 22, we saw several migrant workers return from COVID-19-hit states such as Kerala and Maharashtra. We don’t want the disease to spread among the rest of the community in the Sundarbans which is why we are stressing on self-quarantine for the returnees,” said Mistry.
In the Bay of Bengal delta, one in five households now has at least one family member who has migrated, a study has said. Environmental stresses, such as sea-level rise and erosion, indirectly disrupt livelihood security and can contribute to economic circumstances that necessitate migration.
Read more on migration in the Sundarbans delta
“The travel restrictions have impacted the ecotourism business and activities such as nature and wildlife camps, such as those centred around the Sundarban Tiger Reserve. But the benefits of the lockdown to control the spread of infection far outweigh the temporary financial losses,” Mistry added.
Mangrove tour operator Sanjoy Mondal, who arranges tours to the tiger reserve for both international and domestic visitors, echoes Anil Mistry. Mondal faced a temporary but brief disruption in services when Bulbul, a very severe cyclonic storm, swept through the Sundarbans mangrove, barely six months ago, in November 2019. Despite a partial hit, business resumed in the winter months through December to February of the new year (2020).
“With natural disasters frequent in the Sundarbans we know to some extent what to anticipate and how to weather it by now as far as our tourism activities are concerned. The impacts of COVID-19 have been unprecedented even before the temporary shutdown began,” Mondal, who has been running Sundarban Safari for seven years, told Mongabay-India.
While the peak tourist season stretches from December to February, Mondal said tour operators in the Sundarbans still receive bookings in March. “The fallout of the pandemic is that we have had massive cancellations at a time (in March and mid-April) when we are usually running at 70 percent of our capacity,” said Mondal.
He fears the impacts of the COVID-19 associated restrictions, that are necessary, will add on to the existing stress that his staff is under. He said many of them make a large share of their living during the peak tourist season and then go back to tending to their agricultural work with the onset of the monsoon season.
“Due to the delayed onset of the monsoon in 2019, we could only grow paddy and most of the winter farming such as vegetables, pulses, mustard crops were severely impacted. The cyclonic storm Bulbul also laid waste to whatever we could manage to grow,” Mondal explained.
“Nature has hit us in every possible way this time. But we in the Sundarbans are resilient given our past experiences with natural disasters, we will bounce back,” he said.
But a return to normalcy will not be easy even if the world comes out of the grip of the pandemic in the coming weeks, said Geetha Sreenivasan, eco-tourism promoter and convenor of Nilgiris chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. For two consecutive years, floods had crippled Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, badly affecting ecotourism, its mainstay.
For instance, forest-dwelling tribals and those who live on the fringes of the Mudumalai National Park, who serve as travel guides, are now jobless as no one took their services following a spate of landslides resulting in the loss of ecotourism infrastructure such as roads, said Sreenivasan.
Wayanad in Kerala has seen a similar situation. Other than the two floods (2018, 2019), that threw ecotourism out of gear, the Nipah virus outbreak in neighbouring Kozhikode district in 2018 and 2019 has also dealt a blow.
Operators warn that without the local community’s support, ecotourism will not be sustainable and for their backing, resilience is needed.
“Without tribals and other forest dwellers, no ecotourism is possible. Making them a resilient would contribute much to ecotourism. Along with fighting the viral disease threat, governments have the obligation to support families of tribal guides and ecotourism workers financially at least for the next six months,” said Gopinath Parayil, who co-founded responsible tourism initiative The Blue Yonder.
Saurabh Kumar Dixit, associate professor, and head, department of tourism and hotel management, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, agrees.
“The decision to temporarily bar entry of visitors to protected areas will negatively impact the livelihoods of the indigenous communities involved in ecotourism and wildlife tourism-related activities, but it is a necessary step that will ensure they are fit for the long-term. Governments should also think sympathetically to compensate their financial losses after handling this disaster,” Dixit told Mongabay-India discussing the sector in northeast India.
“Most people in the business in Assam are from indigenous communities. The disruption in the tourism business will stress those who had invested in the business with loans from banks as they will have to pay interest and capital. I would suggest that the government relaxes capital and interest payment for a few days to months based on how this pandemic takes shape,” wildlife researcher Firoz Ahmed of Aaranyak added.
Though Sikram Barman, president of the Manas Ever Welfare Society (MEWS) that runs tourist cottages in and around the Manas National Park, in Assam, is worried for his small staff, he is using the downtime from the temporary suspension of his ecotourism business to generate awareness among fringe communities in villages around the park. MEWS is constituted by youth from the fringe villages around the park.
“We have returned all advance payments made by tourists for reservations. We would have taken steps to scale down business even if restrictions were not officially announced but now it is beyond our control. Before the pandemic stoked fears among potential tourists, we also suffered losses from the protests associated with the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests,” Barman said.
However, Barman takes solace in the fact that most of his staff is not totally dependent on ecotourism for livelihood. “Most go back to their villages to do agricultural work,” Barman said.
“For the staff who rely only on ecotourism, it would mean a substantial financial loss. It depends on how the pandemic evolves. We still hope to target local tourists once the park opens and if conditions are okay,” Barman added. Barman and his staff are communicating with farmers in fringe villages to drill them on safety measures such as social distancing.
“There is not much awareness about the disease among the farming community in the fringe villages at the moment and as the situation is rapidly evolving we are also doing our bit to disseminate the correct information and ensure misinformation does not take hold,” he added.
In Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, home to the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceros, ecotourism activities run by the indigenous communities, took a major hit early this year with the anti-CAA protests during the peak visitor season, said park’s field director P. Sivakumar. “We have a six month season because the monsoons flood the park and we close the park from May and reopen in November every year. So this six-month window is when the local communities earn from ecotourism,” said Sivakumar.
At Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, the eco-development committees were about to introduce innovative ecotourism plans when COVID-19 put a spanner in their works. Worst affected by last year’s (2019) flood, the park was out of bounds for the visitors until recently when basic infrastructure was restored. At Periyar Tiger Reserve and Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, tribal tourist guides have been deployed for conservation actions.
Punati Sridhar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Karnataka, hopes the local communities employed in ecotourism in the state will not lose their livelihoods because tourism activities linked to the forests are managed by Jungle Lodges and Resort (JLR), a unit of the state’s department of tourism, managed by Indian Forest Service officers.
“Most importantly, the animals will get some respite from the visitors. They can take a break now,” Sridhar added.
“In the face of calamities and virus outbreaks, there is a shift in the preference of tourists from urban conglomerates, beaches and historical places to the seclusion and tranquillity of forest fringe locations. There is a global trend in favour of eco-tourism. Making the local communities empowered and resilient must be the first step in promoting eco-tourism,” said Gopinath Parayil.
Jose Dominic, one of the pioneers of sustainable tourism in south India said, “Eradication of the coronavirus pandemic is the larger and common goal and I hope the world would achieve it soon. But climate change-related threats are crippling the ecotourism scene for long. A focused intervention is needed to overcome the floods and droughts we are expecting in the coming years.’’
With inputs from K. A. Shaji, a south India-based developmental journalist.
Banner image: Ecotourism in Dang in Gujarat. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.