On wrong trek

The ecological perils of commercial hiking

 
By Abhishek Bhati
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Abhishek BhatiSerene natural beauty, lush green forests, crystal clear springs and stars twinkling through the night—these are sights that attract trekkers to Uttarakhand’s mountains. The beauty of the area was in our minds too when we planned a trek to Roopkund. The glacial lake 4,200 metres above sea level is famous as the site where a Nanda Devi game reserve ranger discovered more than 500 skeletons in 1942. Carbon dating revealed the skeletons to be of people who lived between the 12th and 15th centuries.

Roopkund is also well known among the trekking community for the mesmerising view of Trishul peaks. We proceeded towards Lohajung, our base camp, via Rishikesh, Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Srinagar, Karanprayag and Dewal. After 20 hours of journey we reached our destination and managed to secure a cheap hotel that offered a picturesque view of the mighty Nanda Ghumti. Little did we know the experience would soon be marred.

The next morning, we ascended towards the meadow of Bedni Bugyal from Wan, the last motorable road. It was a steep climb and our heavy rucksacks made the journey even more exciting. We were continuously wary of the surprising number of fast-moving herds of horses and donkeys carrying trekkers’ luggage and food items in the narrow mountain lanes. The road was littered with donkey dung and there were stinking urine pools at many places, acting as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and flies. Wrappers of biscuits, chocolates, gutkha and paan masala littered several places on the climb.

Bedni Bugyal appeared as a Sunday picnic spot almost akin to India Gate in Delhi with colourful tents of various sizes erected along the entire meadow. After finishing dinner, we strolled around to see a tent dining hall with a long table and folding chairs where a bunch of trekkers were giggling away while sumptuous dinner was being served. The tranquility of the meadow was disturbed.

The Roopkund trek is not the only example of over-commercialisation of trekking. Several newspapers and travelogues have reported on environmental pollution along trekking routes such as the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh and the Yuksom trek in Sikkim. Commercial trekking tour companies such as Indiahikes exploit people’s desire for adventure under the pretext of making trekking accessible in far-flung areas. A dhabawala at Bhedni told us that in one session Indiahikes pushed 200 trekkers, charging Rs 9,000 per trekker.

The Roopkund trek is an example of over-commercialisation of trekking

In the three days of our stay we could see three batches of Indiahikes tourists, each batch consisting of at least 20 people. These companies glamorise the treks, attracting tourists—mostly corporate employees—who can afford to pay heavy fees. These tourists expect luxurious services such as food cooked to fine taste and served in a dining hall, donkey to carry luggage, and in some cases, packaged water. This leads to transportation of heavy utensils, tents, chairs, tables and immense traffic along the trekking route. Cooking generates large amount of both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. There is also leftover food thrown on the ground. This dumped food attracts many mountain crows and eagles making the whole place noisy and chaotic.

The tourist mentality also reflects in provision of toilet tents, usually a pit dug in a small tent so that trekkers can defecate with a sense of privacy. The pit is dug almost every day and then filled with earth. The normal decomposition process, which is already slower in high altitudes, can process human excreta of four to five people in a day. But the tents in Bedni get many more people. It would not require rocket science to comprehend that these pits will become breeding grounds for bacteria and contaminate water.

It would perhaps be inappropriate or unfeasible to completely curb commercialisation of trekking routes, as markets eventually find their way towards skimming money. There is no doubt that trekking tourism injects money into the local economy which provides livelihood to residents. But the heart of the problem lies in the over-exploitation of the fragile ecosystem. Corporates speak of the trickledown effect. However, the local community gets only a minuscule of the total wealth generated by tour companies.

The government has to increase its regulatory presence and limit the number of trekkers. Strong penalties should be imposed on those who dump or burn non-biodegradable material in the meadow. Currently, the only role of forest department in Bedni Bhugyal is to collect the permit fee. In fact, one of the forest officials told us to dump our waste in Bugyal itself as he considered it nonsensical to carry it down till Wan.

The local community should not be limited to providing guiding and porter support. They should be trained and informed about environmental damages because they are the ones who are dependent on the forest.

Abhishek Bhati is with Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru, and is working on issues related to Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Public Policy

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  • Large organized camping

    Large organized camping groups are a problem all over the Himalaya, although in Nepal I have seen them to be a little more careful in disposing of waste.

    Perhaps India needs to promote teahouse trekking (we have a lot to learn from the Annapurna Conservation Area Project or ACAP in Nepal), and limit the number of trekkers in a group firstly, and then limit the number of groups per season.

    Let the corporate adventurers have an auction for the privilege. They can afford it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Oh! Does this guy work for a

    Oh!
    Does this guy work for a rival of Indiahikes? That may explain his being choleric about Indiahikes getting tourist-cum-trekkers to Roopkund.

    >>The road was littered with donkey dung and there were stinking urine pools at many places, acting as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and flies
    Can't a donkey even poop or pee? Jokes apart, I don't see how ecosystem is damaged when the donkeys and the trekkers defecate and pass the urine.

    >>This dumped food attracts many mountain crows and eagles making the whole place noisy and chaotic.
    He has a real sense of humour. When I had gone hiking in the Kullu valley, I was dying to see the eagles. If he is so much concerned about tranquility, he should rather get good ear plugs.

    >>The tourist mentality also reflects in provision of toilet tents, usually a pit dug in a small tent so that trekkers can defecate with a sense of privacy.
    What does he expect? Go for the potty in front of other fellow-trekkers? Well, I don't really think this is a very good idea.

    >>It would not require rocket science to comprehend that these pits will become breeding grounds for bacteria and contaminate water.
    I don't really think that these tourist-cum-trekkers would empty the bowels in the drinking-water-stream. And I believe that the bacteria are required for decomposition of, even, the rotting leaves of the fall. So now the author should find a way to stop the rotting of leaves.

    I think that trekking in the Himalayas should not be just the trained and expert trekkers' cup of tea. If the 'real' trekkers, like the author, want to be in untouched, unexplored and serene places in the Himalayas, he should better think of something like Everest Base Camp or even higher.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • In reply to anonymous: I'll

    In reply to anonymous:
    I'll first quote the important points you missed:
    "Wrappers of biscuits, chocolates, gutkha and paan masala littered several places on the climb."
    Waste disposal is and always should be a personal as well as a community responsibility. Blaming the government or government department later on is what can be termed as Escapism by Citizens AND tourists themselves.
    "The tranquility of the meadow was disturbed."
    He obviously is being very genteel in the way he quotes 'loud-mouthed' Urban dwellers. Urban dwellers, who have to deal with the chaotic noises of busy city-life, seldom realize how loud they speak. Many tourists play loud music in such places, because they listen to music every day. Seldom do they realize that if you shut the noise away, and silently wait for a few moments you'll hear Nature speak...bird-calls, crickets, etc etc...Isn't that the reason why we visit such a place? To appreciate nature. Then we need to learn how to appreciate it.
    "Several newspapers and travelogues have reported on environmental pollution along trekking routes such as the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh and the Yuksom trek in Sikkim. ... A dhabawala at Bhedni told us that in "one session" Indiahikes pushed "200 trekkers", charging Rs 9,000 per trekker. In the three days of our stay we could see three batches of Indiahikes tourists, each batch consisting of at least 20 people.ÔÇØ
    ItÔÇÖs as good as saying we just saw a 1000tonne road-roller, flatten a meadow. That is how bad, the above single instance has affected the ecosystem there, within those three days.
    ÔÇ£Cooking generates large amount of both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. There is also leftover food thrown on the ground. This dumped food attracts many mountain crows and eagles making the whole place noisy and chaotic." Food we eat is not always the food viable for animals @ the places we visit. The food waste attracts Crows and Eagles, however, you will only get to see Opportunistic species. For an ecosystem to remain in balance, biodiversity of that particular region should, ideally, remain as untouched as possible.
    On Human Feces: "The pit is dug almost every day and then filled with earth. The normal decomposition process, which is already slower in high altitudes, can process human excreta of four to five people in a day. But the tents in Bedni get many more people. It would not require rocket science to comprehend that these pits will become breeding grounds for bacteria and contaminate water."
    Humans are a gamut of viruses and bacteria. We are disease carriers in inexplicable terms. It is toxic waste to a lot of other species. The fecal matter that does not properly decompose will trickle down in to the groundwater Drainage, which would then trickle into the nearest Streams, thus, contaminating the water.
    Also, exposure to excessive donkey waste and Urine pots is quite harmful to the mammals of that region.
    Please read the last three paragraphs carefully. He indicates solutions to the problem but does not imply any false implications to Indiahikes in particularand has also called out for ownership and responsibility for necessary actions. Most tourism groups are city-based and local involvement is near to nil. So, all that talk about locals benefitting from tourists is not true. Encouraging homestay, participation of locals as guides with knowledge of their regions is definitely worth encouraging.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • It is obvious that many tour

    It is obvious that many tour companies are not following environmentally friendly procedures. I certainly believe that the tourism ministry should imply certain rules to ensure the safety of natural places. Practices of safely disposing waste, limiting the number of participants, are few small examples which can have a huge positive impact. As for the problem regarding the decomposition of human excreta, I am sure once there is a limit to participants, the ground will have the capacity to biodegrade.

    Vaivhav

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Well I think all kind of

    Well I think all kind of tourism has its own pros and cons. As long as we bring back the bottles, plastic and other non biodegradable waste with us things should be fine. Also no natural vegetation etc should be destroyed for camping.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with Abhishek on the

    I agree with Abhishek on the situation getting created. But whom to blame? Does limiting number of trekking groups solve the problem? Why not limit everybody, lets not allow anybody, it will be clean forever. But is that a solution?
    So corporates take these treks just because they are capable of paying heavy? And they are toured in Mercedes right? Well, I personally believe people don't risk their lives if they don't really like trekking? There are people who just love to be lost in the beauty of nature, there are people who want to witness the extremes of nature and trek organizing companies (like Indiahikes, I am just taking this name because you mentioned it) help enthusiastic people live their dream without which they might not have tried ever.
    What makes sense discussing is ecosystem disturbance. Yes, let's make it personal. Take every freaking care not to litter the place and maintain it the same or make it better. I believe corporates understand this better because they practice this at work everyday. They are responsible people, not to exclude rest of the country.
    Yes, charging heavy penalties and imprisonments do help. Implementing these will definitely benefit ecosystem. This will definitely limit the crowd only to the enthusiastic trekkers. What's more important to note is taking it personal, consider it as your home and do everything that you can not litter the place and to maintain it clean.
    P.S.: I am no Indiahikes fan and give a damn about corporates. I am just a common man who loves nature.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The concerns expressed by the

    The concerns expressed by the author are real. Too much commercialization, too many people does have effect on the ecological balance and also takes out the fun people are expecting from these treks.

    Trek operators should take responsibility to minimize the pollution. Also it might help if they themselves limit the number of batches and the number of people in these batches. Avoid over-exploitation of the popularity of a particular trek.

    And yes participation of local community must be encouraged and they should also be sensitized about the ecological impacts of over-exploitation.

    Having said that, in India, trekking is not that popular even though we have the most magnificent Himalaya ranges, Western Ghat. Certain economics is always necessary to actually promote it and make it accessible to all enthusiasts.

    I thank the author for expressing his concerns. It is everybody's concern. I hope the trek operators do acknowledge the issues and take remedial measures.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with the author on

    I agree with the author on mismanagement by operators, irresponsibility of tourists, and overall lack of respect for natives and the environment. I did the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra last year, and though I'd love to repeat it, I won't because of the kind of footprint the tour operators leave behind (food wrappers, "disposable" cutlery, water containers,,, ) Neither the Tibetan natives nor the Chinese administration seem at all bothered by the quantum of waste left by yatris, as long as local economy prospers at the expense of ecology.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • DTE and soon-to-be-MBA, I run

    DTE and soon-to-be-MBA,

    I run a mountaineering and trekking company, and I think this is one of the worst pieces of amateur journalism that Down to Earth has ever run (I've been a journo, too, so I know a bit about reporting as well).

    Disclosure : Indiahikes is my BIGGEST competitor, I lose most of all prospective clients to them. So I have no love for them.


    Let me tell you why i think it's terrible :

    1) The writer insinuates that adventure or outdoor toursim is ok, but only if you can pay a premium. What's wrong with paying Rs 9,000 for a trek? Does he seriously believe that trekking is only for those who can afford it? I didn't think Down To Earth supported such elitist views.

    2) Donkey dung... dude... really. Has this guy actually done more than one trek in the Himalayas? Donkey, horse, mule, dzo and yak dung is common all over the mountains. Even without trekkers, the people who live in the mountains use these animals as beasts of burden. I actually welcome droppings, because then I know i'm on the right track. This betrays that the writer knows nothing about what he's writing about. Also, he chose one of the most popular treks around.

    Also. Dumped food--has this guy ever heard of the term 'scavengers'. Which eagle did he see, BTW? Eagles are a GREAT sighting... I once saw a Golden Eagle in spiti, and it completely changed my life. Too bad Mr. Trekker bunches them with the crows.

    Jeez.

    3) This guy is SO elitist, that he's even above 'corporates'. Really? What's wrong with being a corporate employee? I'm not, I'm a mountaineer, but please, DTE, tell me what's the problem with being a corporate employee?

    4) Jouralistically speaking, this is a bad article. His only source of information is a dhabawala. After berating Indiahikes, he doesn't even get their point of view. This used to be a journalistic no-no back in my Express days. Looks like the quality of Down to earth is sliding...why don't you guys get Ravleen Kaur back?

    5) On our treks, we don't take toilet tents. We encourage people to go in the open. But you know what's really killing the mountains? SUVs from Delhi, Plane travel, Air Conditioning...you know, strip mining to make PS3s yada yada... oh wait, you're an environment magazine, you know all about Global Warming and what causes it.

    6) If our man in the mountains had bothered to speak to an actual trekking company, he'd realise that we've become very aware in recent times. The challenge is that locals are used to throwing trash into rivers or surroundings. The problem is that the NATURE of the trash has changed. Earlier, it was all bio-degradable, now it's plastic. Of course, trekking companies bring a lot more trash, and many of us burn it, but we're learning not to. There is a strong Leave No Trace movement (we leave none) and even locals have begun to see the point in it.

    What is this nonsense about curbing trekking and markets skimming. I studied economics as well, and I know he has no clue. It's a pity he will someday be directing foreign policy.

    The truth is that when people come on treks with us (or Indiahikes) they realise what the Natural world is. Zoos have a similar argument for caging animals.

    When people go back, having spent some of the best days of their lives, in the backcountry, we find they realise what is happening to the mountains, they realise that our wilderness is dying, and some of them even begin to take steps to help. Is this what the part-time-environmental-journalist wants to curb?

    I'm dissapointed that Down To Earth ran this.

    Karn Kowshik
    Geck & Co Adventurers
    www.facebook.com/Geckco

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Blaming the locals for the

    Blaming the locals for the mess is typical of people visiting the hills nowadays who have no idea of the way things work here. The problem is the trekking groups who fleece the customer and in no way help the local community. And then they project as if they are doing some great service to the hill people. What their customers don't know is the trek they advertise as the experience only a few can cherish is the route of a pilgrimage which sees more than 50,000 people (mostly locals) going to Roopkund and beyond.So much for a strenuous trek, hah!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Loved the different opinions

    Loved the different opinions being tossed around in the article and comments. The article certainly shows the writers' biases, some of which are contentious to say the least.

    Nature belongs to us all and, more importantly, to the locals who are the most affected by any change. Bringing in tourists from the entire gamut of the economic spectrum should be encouraged. As a commentator indicated, getting more people to appreciate nature can only mean good things for the environment.

    That said, the article does point to some disturbing facts. Throwing trash and littering seem to be an obvious reality. While the comments seem to indicate that some steps are being taken, they are clearly not enough. It should be in the tour companies' and locals' best economic interest to make sure the place is as pristine as possible. People should be named and shamed if they are littering the environment and others like Karn (who seems to be a strong proponent of the leave no trace movement) should be encouraged. Sustainable yet friendly eco-tourism is the way forward and this article does a good job showing that we are nowhere close to that goal.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I have worked with both CSE

    I have worked with both CSE and Indiahikes and have immense respect for both the organisations and their concern for the environment. However, after reading this article it felt like a misunderstanding between two brothers. I will like to take this opportunity to shed light on the good work that Indiahikes has done and request CSE to join hands and help them do better.

    The article above mentions that "Indiahikes exploit peopleÔÇÖs desire for adventure under the pretext of making trekking accessible in far-flung areas.." This conclusion is very far fetched and I will request CSE and DTE to join a trek with Indiahikes and see it for themselves the work that has been done to educate trekkers as well as local communities to be sensitive towards the environment.

    I joined Indihikes on their Green trails batch for Roopkund on 3rd June last year. This was a special batch of trekkers who not only cleared a lot of trash along the trails and on campsites but also sensitised the local communities towards the environment.

    Please see the following links for yourself and help Indiahikes in their honest venture to protect the mountains.

    http://www.indiahikes.in/green-trails/

    Some important videos

    1) The village Sarpanch Bhuwant Singh Bisht on Indiahikes

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsNP_r-vsS0

    2) Clearing garbage at Bedni
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CI_0gzKDbd8

    3) Interaction with locals
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0HmAURy2dQ


    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Abhishek, Be positive.

    Dear Abhishek,

    Be positive. Do not be so critical of the stuffs which are improving. I know that things can be much better but as a community, adventure enthusiasts over the time have become more responsible. Even the local community have become more responsible. It is actually a fad to use fancy words like training and stuff for local community on environment issues. You do not need it. They already know it much better than the guys who will provide it. They are born and brought up there. Its commonsense anyway. We all are trying to do it now. Rather than having a negative approach you should see the change of attitude of travelers as well as local community. Hope you do not mind my words that much.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Hello, I have recently

    Hello,

    I have recently trekked with a company named PAC Adventures. http://www.pacadventures.com/

    I was very much surprised to see their approach towards trekking as well as the ecological balance is concerned.

    Some Points I would like to mention.

    Firstly their group size is remarkably small(10 or less). As clients we had plenty of flexibilities while on the trail. Each one was equally supported by their team-mates and the whole trek turned out to be a friends reunion. The whole team moved in a group irrespective of few being fast or slow.

    Secondly the most important thing they emphasised was acclimatization.

    Food was ample and hygienic and sometimes it was a grand feast(in those conditions). Everybody had adequate supply.

    I was really surprised to see their environment friendly nature. The team mates even collected back the candy wrappers which the trekkers chewed on the way. While I have seen many trails where you are penalised for littering...these people took a slight different approach. They rewarded people for maintaining the zero plastic rule. Everyday in the evening meet the most eco-friendly person was selected and was rewarded. This created a sense of responsibility among the trekkers and on the last days clients also took part in the clean up programme. We collected back water bottles, wrappers, noodle packets, cigarette buds(some people dare to smoke on high altitude treks) and what so ever polluting agents.

    Lastly I would love to mention the price which is irrelevant to this topic but many operators give an excuse that they cannot look after the environment control factor due to the competitive price(lack of man management). The price they quoted was below the others but still the environment factor was well maintained. Its not the money but the mentality that matters.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Roopkund is at 5029m and not 4200m as claimed by the author

    Posted by: Procheta C.V. Mallik | 3 years ago | Reply
  • The article implies to have an open vendetta against Indiahikes. To all fairness, Abhishek brings out a genuine concern, not necessarily restricted to Indiahikes.

    The popularity of Guided Trekking in India has seen an upward trend. While many trek organizers have learned the importance of keeping the trail clean, it has not translated into a success.

    Some trek organizers believe taking a huge number of trekkers is justifiable. If you can bring your trash down then stars are the limit. This is a problem. And in the context of Roopkund, the number of trekkers is on the rise.

    Roopkund today needs a breather. Ethical Trek Companies should opt in scaling down the number of batches they run. The Camping grounds of these treks are not going to expand. The infrastructure at the campsite is non-existent. You don't have proper toilet facilities on a trek where fixed camps are set. How much amount of human feces can the mountain consume? How much non-bio degradable waste lays on the trail untreated? Who can do the math and compute the ecological damage in the last 6 years alone in Roopkund?

    I have seen the reluctance of few Organizers in addressing this concern. How is the need to expand business takes precedence over the ecological impact? Why do they get so defensive when someone talks about regulating the number of trekkers?

    The low cost, bulk trekking business model is damaging. It does little in boosting the local micro-enterprise. It is difficult for local operators to compete with Outside companies. A cost-cutting war hurts the quality and safety provided to trekkers. Chadar Trek is a good example of this.

    Why can the Guided trekking be repositioned as a premium product? Why the compromises made by Organizers (in taking unfit and unprepared people) be overlooked?

    Most of the Trek Operators have no clue how to work on it. They play the waiting game of seeing the Big operators make the first move and follow them. Unfortunately, what they are learning is how to market/sell treks on social media, new treks to launch etc.

    The Guided Trekking in India needs regulations. If the government cannot step up, I hope National Green Tribunal does.

    Vaibhav Chauhan

    Wander the Himalayas

    https://www.facebook.com/wanderthehimalayas.in | http://wanderthehimalayas.com

    Posted by: Himalayan Wanderer | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Hello everyone..!! Nice Blog nice pictures. Nagalapuram is a small town 70 km southeast of Tirupati. This village was designed during Sri Krishnadevaraya reign in the memory of his mother. The town has a very famous temple of Vedanarayana Swami. Nagala trail is one of the famous trekking routes in Eastern Ghats.
    Must visit URL- https://bmcadventures.com/events/event/nagalapuram-trek-eastern-ghats/

    Posted by: Jenny | 2 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with Abhishek. Irresponsible trekking is causing damage to the remote destinations and India Hikes tops the chart of monsters who are destroying the natural wealth of the Himalayas. They are just selling exotic destinations and not empowering anyone in the process. The youth who pay learn nothing, the local communities earn nothing. The natural infrastructure of Himalayas is available for free and its all about marketing. Its high time the institutions like CSE conduct an in-depth study on the impacts of large scale trekking in the interiors of Himalayas.

    Posted by: K Sunil | 10 months ago | Reply