Tourism in Ranthambore is inimical to wildlife
After reading headlines about vanishing tigers in India, I decided to take my family to Ranthambore forest reserve in Rajasthan. I had visited the sanctuary 25 years ago -- then called a romantic jungle -- while doing my doctoral research.
This time my wife, a Taiwanese biologist, and our daughter, a senior high school student, accompanied me. We set out in January 2006 intending to see a tiger. I prefer caution while talking about tiger conservation in India. I stay in Taiwan a country that has been blamed for using tiger parts in traditional medicine. As a biologist, I tell students in Taiwan not to consume medicines produced from endangered species. But I wonder if that helps.
We reached Ranthambore one evening with the mild winter breeze on our backs. It was the right time for an evening ride into the jungle to view the majestic cat. We hopped onto an overcrowded open truck provided by the forest department.I soon learnt that the extra people on board without tickets were the truck driver's friends they stood around the driver chatting with him and blocking the view of other passengers. But they were polite enough to clear the way, on being told that we had come from Taiwan to see Indian wildlife.
Several trucks and private jeeps crisscrossed the dusty jungle road but there was no tiger in sight, even after an hour. The engine noise and thick plume of red sandy dust from the jungle road thrown up by our truck and other jeeps might have chased them away. However, we did see several herds of sambar, the largest in the deer family, as also troops of Hanuman langurs, dozens of bird species, some crocodiles and wild boars.
A former hunting preserve of local chieftains, Ranthambore was among the first of reserves to be included in the Project Tiger, launched in 1973. But today it seems that local and foreign tourist parties with their dust-triggering vehicles have replaced royal hunting expeditions of earlier times. The red sandy dust thrown up by the truck had left us choking and we were relieved after reaching the metal road.
While entering and exiting the park, we saw a view of the breathtaking Ranthambore fort that was built in the 10th century. We asked the driver to stop the truck so that we could look at the fort. He refused and said that was not part of the tour. So, we rented a jeep the next morning to explore the Ranthambore fort.
The fort had many buildings, only a few of which have survived the ravages of wars, time and harsh weather. A large lake adjoins the fort and variety of wild animals can be seen around the water body. The fort is overrun by vegetation and scattered remains of chhattris, summer palaces and crumbling guard posts can still be seen. No one stopped me while I entered the fort and inside, I noticed a sign at the entrance saying 'Archaeological Survey of India'. It appears that this body manages the fort.
The view of the forest and lake from the fort was fantastic with a binocular, I watched sambar deer, chital and wild boars. It was surprising to see a heard of wild nilgai walking on the fort's outskirts. The visit to the fort was more satisfying than the dusty truck tour of Ranthambore tiger reserve.
Although the forest department tries to limit the entry of jeeps and trucks into the forest, I feel that the tiger tourism managed by the state forest department is weak. There is no attempt to educate the visitors on the value of India's forest and wildlife. Dust thrown up by vehicles gets into the lungs of visitors and wildlife, scaring away shy animals such as the tiger. The small forest cannot tolerate large tourist pressure. So, I feel that Ranthambore is not suitable for mass tourism; it would be better to stop the driving tour inside the forest. It can be replaced with a walking tour of the Ranthambore fort and the adjoining lake accompanied by professional tour guides. A few large watchtowers with telescopes can be erected along the water reservoir and trained guides can show tourists wildlife including tigers. The forests in and around Ranthambore fort are an amazing ecological paradise. But their potential to serve as an educational and recreational centre for tourists has not been fully realised by authorities.
Govindasamy Agoramoorthy is a professor at Tajen University, Taiwan, where he teaches biodiversity conservation and ecotourism. He can be reached through e-mail at email@example.com
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