The wildlife tourism season in India runs for about nine months, from early October to end-June. By July, when the monsoon season begins, the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries close their gates to visitors. When they re-open in October, tourists, yearning for a taste of the wilderness, return in the thousands.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has blunted the enthusiasm of tourists and had a crippling effect on the wildlife tourism sector. Ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced at the end of March 2020, the sector has witnessed a colossal devastation. The lockdown coincided with the peak wildlife tourism months of April and May. Parks all over the country were shut for two months, and even though they have reopened, tourists remain wary of travel. “People dependent on tourism are jobless. They are in debt,” says Aditya Panda, a conservationist and professional safari operator who organizes wildlife tours, predominantly in Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Rajasthan.
This is something I, too, saw first-hand during a trip to Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks in Madhya Pradesh at the end of October. Pre-pandemic, there would be about 30 safari vehicles per zone (Bandhavgarh has three core zones and Kanha four) in the parks. Local guides say the figure is now down to less than half, even on weekends.
Foreign tourists have disappeared, much like the cheetah from Indian jungles. “Tourist visas are not being issued,” Panda says, adding that most of his clientele is from abroad. Foreign tourists are the real spenders—they stay longer, tip more and take multiple safaris. “Foreign tourists outspend local tourists, 10-to-1,” Panda says. “India could have followed the examples of countries like Kenya and Nepal where foreign tourists were tested on arrival. We have given up on the 2020-21 season,” he adds.
Most of the tourists coming to Kanha and Bandhavgarh are from within Madhya Pradesh or from the adjacent states of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. These visitors drive down from places like Katni, Satna, Rewa, Umaria, Jabalpur, Raipur and Nagpur, many of them just taking a day’s break.
Sonu Barman, a guide and driver at Bandhavgarh National Park, says, "business poora down hai (business has hit rock-bottom)". Barman, who has been a guide for the last 20 years, says he has never seen a situation like this before. During the peak wildlife season, he would earn about ₹25,000 a month for his services; it’s now down to ₹5,000 to ₹8,000 a month. Guides and safari vehicle drivers, who are mostly from the local community, have turned to farming to sustain their meagre fortunes. Those who don’t have farms are living hand-to-mouth, awaiting their turn as guide on the daily roster, he says.
The effect is as harsh on wildlife tour operators. Over the last decade, India has seen a mushrooming of operators who provide specialised safari tours for wildlife enthusiasts. Trips are tailor-made for visits to areas teeming with tigers (Ranthambore, Kabini, Bandhavgarh, Tadoba), for birding (Saatal, Bharatpur, Munsiyari, Mishmi Hills), for snow leopard expeditions (Spiti, Hemis) or to other biodiversity hotspots (Kaziranga, Little Rann of Kutchh). An incredible wildlife photography experience or just the opportunity to encounter India’s astonishing diversity of fauna with knowledgeable experts is the promise these tour operators extend to their prospective clients. But this year business has come to a halt. “The whole company has gone into a loss. Even now there is no earning,” says Bharat Goel, co-founder of Wildnest, a specialized wildlife-tour company. Goel has laid off five people, and the company is managed by his family members. “Revenue is down 80-90%,” he adds.
Siddhartha Sharma, a founder member of The Nemophilist, a wildlife-tour company based out of Maharashtra, says that between October and December 2019, his company organized two safari and four birding tours. This year, they have done just one tour so far in the same period, a visit to Melghat and Tadoba tiger reserves via road. He cancelled a tour to Masai Mara in Kenya, planned for in August.
“The impact of covid-19 has gone beyond wildlife tourism eco-system, it has also impacted wildlife,” Siddhartha says over email. “There has been a rise in consumption of bushmeat – peacocks, jungle fowls, squirrels, monitor lizards, anything that can be trapped by snares, all over -- due to loss of wages at ground level.” According to an article published in the The New Indian Express in June, the rise in poaching during the coronavirus pandemic is because "people left jobless turn to wildlife to make money and feed their families." The article says the rise in poaching for meat during the pandemic is not restricted to India, and several wildlife organisations across the world are concerned about the problem.
With little support from the Central or state governments, in the form of a GST rebate or other concessions, operators are taking steps to draw tourists back. The Nemophilist, for instance, started monitoring the temperature and oxygen readings of all participants a week before the Melghat and Tadoba tour. “A doctor’s certificate regarding the general fitness of each participant was also made mandatory,” Sharma says. At Kanha and Bandhavgarh too, forest staff noted down temperatures of tourists and sanitized the safari vehicles. ‘No masks, no entry’ is the rule being followed at these places. “Smaller group sizes, three people per safari jeep as opposed to six and avoiding crowded places all through,” are some of the additional measures that Panda recommends.
Akshay Manwani is a freelance writer-author based in Mumbai. He tweets @AkshayManwani