Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Aftermath of an Elephant Attack - Part 1 : Behaviour Guidelines for the Wilderness visitors

On 21st January the unthinkable happened in Gavi. Two over enthusiastic tourists fell victim to the anger of an upset herd of elephants!

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Before I go further watch this video shot by a set of foolhardy young men exhibiting their testosterone levels! Then, watch this man do something very incredible, though I personally wouldn't recommend this strategy unless you have a large insurance and a high threshold for pain in the event the elephant really decided to take you to the cleaners!

While it is easy to pin the blame on the elephant for the Gavi tragedy, it will be better to introspect first. Forests are shrinking by the hour and there is no space for the wildlife. If the recent tiger census figures are to be believed we'll soon be encountering them in our backyards too.

Who is to blame for this? Unscrupulous developers, greedy politicians, timber mafia, poachers, the tourism industry or toothless government policies? It is hard to pin the blame on a particular group but every one has contribution to make when an incident like this happens.

Gavi is a hidden gem. Mind you, I've never been there yet and looks like I might not make if the forest department decides to enforce restrictions. Gavi made it into public view in Kerala after a Malayalam movie was shot in that area. The movie was a hit and public wanted access. The government decided to promote it like any other tourist spot. I've never been there yet so I'm not qualified to comment on the current scenario but I'm sure it is vastly different from what it was a few years ago.

I'll leave my comment on Gavi and proceed to what I really want to say. How to behave in a wilderness area so you will be safe and the wildlife too. I have been holidaying almost exclusively in such places for more than a decade. Not for me are the concrete jungles and the colourful, vibrant malls. My colours are very restricted. They are confined to a many shades of green and few shades of brown and khaki. Where else but in a forest can I find these colours? As for why I prefer the jungles, ask me if you are interested. The purpose of this post is to help you avoid an unhappy or fatal encounter.

Wilderness tourism or eco-tourism as it is euphemistically called is now, is being promoted as an alternative to regular tourist circuits. During peak holiday season tourist hot spots overflow but since most wild life sanctuaries and national parks have restrictions on the number of visitors and timings for visits you have a more relaxed holiday! However, if you really want to enjoy such places there are a lot of things to keep in mind.

Driving inside a wildlife sanctuary
The unfortunate thing about progress is that our forest have shrunk so drastically. The last of these islands of wilderness struggle to cope with encroachment from all sides. They are, in some places, criss-crossed by highways connecting important towns. During the holidays and weekends traffic flow through these highways are extraordinarily heavy. There are some rules to be followed when you drive through forest areas.

  1. Restrict you speed to 40 kmph or less. Enjoy the drive and ensure you are not responsible for a roadkill due to reckless driving.
  2. Don't honk unnecessarily and try to overtake the vehicle ahead. 
  3. Don't play loud music. Enjoy the sounds of the forest.
  4. Don't drink and drive. Your reflexes are slowed and judgement is poor.
  5. Don't stop and get out of your vehicle in a wildlife area. You are endangering yourself. 
  6. Don't feed wild animals especially the monkeys and deer. They are prone to get bolder and may eventually end up under a vehicles tyres in their excitement.
  7. Don't throw litter, especially plastic waste. A banana or orange peel will degrade but plastic will degrade the environment. 
  8. DO NOT SMOKE. A carelessly thrown cigarette butt can start a forest fire that can destroy a whole forest.
  9. Don't stop for picnics or to answer nature's calls. There are designated areas near the park reception centers for eating food, disposing waste and toilet facilities. 
  10. Adhere to timings and don't argue at the check post. Many wild life sanctuaries restrict vehicle movement from dusk to dawn. Respect the rules and the right of the animals.

The following photos are mostly from Bandipur taken during holiday seasons. We Indians love to break rules and sadly, we do it with impunity. When someone stops to tell you what is right and what is wrong we ignore them or abuse them. Judge for your self.

Don't encourage animals to take feed from you...........

.....or they might just end up under the next speeding vehicle!

Forests are not studios...

.....nor are they a place to play hero!

They certainly aren't public toilets!

Who is more uncivilized, the forest beings or idiots like this?!

If you are wonder what wild creature they are photographing, just look at the above photo! That is the 'animal'!

Suddenly everyone spots this 'wildlife' after me.....................!!

More wild creatures, in Mudumalai

Picnic in a forest in unsafe and downright foolish!

Accommodation & Food
Most wild life sanctuaries have limited accommodation within the forest. They are mostly operated by the Government departments like Forest & Wildlife, Electricity boards, Irrigation departments and such. Accommodation is basic, with absolutely no luxuries including television, intercom, mobile networks and even sometimes no electricity, So if you are used to such luxuries, it is best to avoid such places. You may not get running water or even hot water for bathing.

Food is always simple fare that can be cooked easily. You have NO CHOICE. Some places expect you to carry your own provisions while the caretaker doubles up as cook. In any case, it is usually vegetarian fare that can be put together in a jiffy.

Of course if you stay in a luxury resort that is located outside the park boundaries things maybe a little different. They might provide more than just luxuries including Ayurvedic massage in case you are bored counting trees and plants!

Vehicle safaris into the forest
Once you are inside the forest keep in mind that you are entering the home of the denizens of the jungles. I refuse to call them 'wild animals' because I have felt that we humans are more wilder on many occasions. These creatures behave in a very civilized manner according to their species' hierarchy. Remember, these creatures are not out to get you, but when provoked, they might just decide to show you who is the boss!

Most sanctuaries have restrictions on the number of vehicles and timings of safaris. There are places where these safaris are conducted in forest department vehicles but in other places private vehicles are allowed with guide deputed by the authorities. The forest gates open early morning and close by around 9.00 AM. They reopen at 3.30 PM and close for the day at sunset. Which means we have permission to wander around for some 6 hours. The other 18 hours belong to the rightful owners of the forests.

When going on a safari or driving in a forest keep these points in mind.
  1. Your naturalist, safari driver or guide is the person in charge. Listen to them always. 
  2. Do not make noise during the trips. Small children are best left at home.
  3. Wear earthly colours. Greens, browns, greys or darker colours. 
  4. Don't make sudden movement and pop up like a jack-in-the-box at the sight of an animal.
  5. Don't open the door or get off the vehicles. Animals rarely attack vehicles. 
  6. Don't throw litter in the forest.You are endangering the animals.
  7. Food and water will not be available in the forest. Carry adequate supplies but don't throw empty wrappers and bottles in the forest. 
  8. When you see an animal or bird don't make noise or try to attract it's attention. 
  9. Use your camera by all means but avoid flash photography. It irritates some animals.
  10. Do NOT smoke. A carelessly thrown cigarette can destroy a whole ecosystem.

Sometimes there might be a small crisis....
.....but stay inside the vehicle at all times, unless instructed to get out.

Keep your hand inside or you might find it a costly loss!
This post is mainly for those of you who drive or get driven into forest areas. If you really want to experience the beauty of the wilderness, my suggestion is to exercise your feet. I mean, get off the vehicle and take a walk in the jungle. You can see from up close, the small things you'll miss while driving around. Having said that, I will also emphasize here that walking around wildlife sanctuaries is not something that you can do on a whim. There are rules to be followed and they vary according to the place you are visiting. Most wildlife sanctuaries and national parks that offer trekking packages put the details on their website. Wherever you chose to go, adhere to the basic guidelines for trekking. That will follow in my next post.

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