On January 23, a 26-year-old tourist camped in a tent at a resort in Kerala’s picturesque Wayanad district was killed after a wild elephant attack. Shahana, a native of Kannur, was living in a tent near the forest when the wild elephants reached the spot.
Just a few days earlier, a gripping video from Masinagudi – an important elephant corridor along with the
(MTR) in Tamil Nadu, a tourist hotspot, went viral on social media. The video showed men driving away from a resort with a burning cloth from an elephant. The tusk died from burns.
These incidents have focused on the emergence of resorts and host families, as well as protected forest areas and game reserves and their adverse effects on the environment.
One area where this trend is clearly visible is the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve – a 5,500 km² piece of land stretching across Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – including the Bandipur, Nagarahole and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves and extends from the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in the east to the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary in the west.
Take Meppadi in Kerala, where the young woman died. Gramm Panchayat authorities say only 17 homestay families with proper permits functioned within the Panchayat borders, while the actual number of such homes could well exceed a hundred.
Environmental activists estimate that there are at least 300 illegal host families in Wayanad District.
Some of these host families are located deep in the forest areas or directly in the ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ), with the valleys of the hills Vythiri, Banasura, Tollayiramkandi and Chembra being particularly popular.
Wayanad District Tourism Promotion Council secretary B Anand said that following the financial squeeze due to Covid-19, there was a higher demand for tents as it was a cheaper alternative to resort rooms.
In October last year, the Supreme Court ordered 39 Masinagudi resorts to be evacuated because they are of ecological concern.
In Karnataka, the ecologically sensitive zones around the Bandipur and Nagarahole tiger reserves have recently emerged as hotspots for ecotourism and seem to point the way from Wayanad and Masinagudi.
In Mangala-Gramm-Panchayat, a reported environmentally sensitive zone next to the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, locals and government officials estimate that at least 20 illegal host families are operating. fourteen In April last year “illegal constructions” were delivered. There are similar estimates for illegal host families along the Kabini backwaters on the edge of Nagarahole National Park, causing pollution in this sensitive region.
A 2017 report in Karnataka showed that only seven of the 51 resorts around national parks were approved by the forestry department. Around the Bandipur TR, only four host families and two resorts have the required authorizations.
Since 2016, the forestry department in Bandipur alone has sent 38 notifications of violations, 25 of which were only sent this year. In the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR), the Nilgiris District Administration has identified 821 illegal buildings, including resorts and host families. Closure notices were issued at 55 such locations.
Officials from the Nilgiris District Administration say they are collecting details of unauthorized tourist cabins, lodges, host families and resorts in the sensitive region.
But how did these resorts come about?
Along the road from Mangala to Yelchatti in Gundlupet taluk near Bandipur, large houses with extensive solar fences, composite walls and even air conditioning are increasingly being used.
Praveen (name changed), who works as a forest ranger in Bandipur, says his family owns more than 23 acres of idle land. “Because of the constant animal raids on crops, many people who have cultivated the land have left it idle,” he says.
This is a major reason for the villagers to sell their land. “Now at least 20% of the land here is in the hands of outsiders,” says Praveen.
“People from Bengaluru and other places are building lavish houses there. They don’t set a homestay board. Some run host families, others build houses and bring their friends and relatives in, ”says T Balachandra, former director of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
Umesh, a resident of Mangala, describes how a cavalry of SUVs and cars can be seen on the road to the village at the weekend, indicating the presence of these host families in the area. Most people come to host families through word of mouth or after asking the locals who is taking them there.
“Bandipur is a hotspot for tourism. The legal resorts here are too expensive and difficult to get rooms. So the tourists ask around and go to local host families, where they are charged Rs 1,500 a day for their stay and food, ”says an official at Gramm Panchayat. The increasing use of plastic and the unscientific disposal of waste, which is expressly forbidden under the ESZ rules, could mean a death blow for this buffer zone.
No clarity about laws
A former chief conservator for forests points out several cases in which “lavish buildings” have been erected without a permit: “The forestry department has completely freed itself of all responsibility.”
He blames the lack of proactive measures by the Ministry of Forestry in the implementation of the ESZ laws for the current state of affairs.
Speaking to officials, it becomes clear that there is little coordination between the revenue, panchayat and forestry departments when implementing the law, so there is room for misinterpretation and illegal constructions.
“There is a committee for the ecologically sensitive zone. All complaints received by the committee have been dealt with and closure orders issued, ”said SR Natesh, director of the Bandipur Tiger project.
Regarding the construction of buildings that take place without a permit from the Ministry of Forestry, he says, “This used to happen when it was an offline system. Land conversion requests are now made online and must be sent to all affected departments. “
Malavika Solanki, a conservationist who built a farmhouse near the village of Lokkere, is one of several new residents of the village who have been notified of illegal construction work. “The Deputy Commissioner has issued selective notices for apartments in the region. You yourself have no clarity about what is permitted under which conditions, ”she says.
“If you have restrictions, why are you allowing revenue land to be sold? Can’t they have clear guidelines to make sure there is no confusion? ” She asks.
In Kerala, Forest Minister K Raju recently told the gathering that political pressure and pressure from various religious organizations was a major obstacle to evacuation of attackers, aside from pending legal proceedings.
A recent announcement by the central government to declare 34 km around the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary as an ecologically sensitive area has sparked resentment.
“The Tahsildar is conducting an investigation and reporting to the authorities of Gram Panchayat and Revenue, which are providing the licenses. There’s a connection here, ”says Balachandra. He says influential local leaders often get involved and ignore rules or bypass the permits required by the forestry department to convert the land.
He also emphasizes that all departments in environmentally sensitive areas must work together and ensure that permissions are in place before a structure is created.
“The question is the severity of the disturbance to the animals. Mudumalai to Bandipur is an important elephant corridor. Now the elephants find other routes and go helter-skelter. This creates space for more loss of life and property, ”says Balachandra.
“This will cause a lot of turmoil in the days to come. It will increase conflict with wildlife and we will reach a stage where the forest department will be helpless, ”he adds.
For example, in Tamil Nadu, 219 people lost their lives in conflict with elephants from 2014 to 2019, and most of those deaths came from areas near Coimbatore, Pollachi and the Nilgiris. These are districts bordering Mudumalai and an increase in the presence of resorts in this region is likely to exacerbate the human-animal conflict.
Kodagu has an estimated 800-900 registered host families. “Many host families are not registered to avoid taxes and are more like guest houses or hotels,” said CP Muthanna, former president of the Coorg Wildlife Society
“In 2019 there were 18 lakh tourists against a population of 6 lakh in the district. Tourism needs to be regulated, not promoted. Mountain stations like Kodagu have a fragile ecology and we have to be careful, ”says Muthanna.
The rapid flowering of resorts and host families in sensitive areas lends an undesirable dimension to a landscape that is already characterized by conflicts between humans and animals – the tourists. If left unchecked, it could have serious environmental impacts in the future.
(With contributions from ETB Sivapriyan)