The Hindu (Mumbai)

Too many trekkers spoil the mountains

The Karnataka Ecotourism Developmen­t Board has forgotten its role

- Janaki Murali Janaki Murali is a journalist and author

fter 4,000 trekkers climbed the Kumara Parvatha peak in the ecological­ly fragile Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary on the Republic Day weekend, an alarmed Karnataka government temporaril­y banned trekking in the State. Until a standard operating procedure is put in place, routes without an online booking system would remain closed, it said.

Although temporary in nature, the ban will effectivel­y extend until September, as trekking is not allowed in the forest from March to September due to the risks associated with the monsoon months and probable forest fires.

Videos of a traffic jam of climbers en route to the peak went viral on social media. The government took this decision after ecologists and conservati­onists raised concerns about the damage that this could cause to the ecological­ly sensitive Western Ghats. While welcoming prompt action from the government, activists have called for more stringent measures and access to be limited to only serious trekkers studying forests and the environmen­t.

Nowadays, many young trekkers with disposable incomes book weekend getaways that are challengin­g. They often flood social media with their personal vlogs, capturing their unique experience of negotiatin­g a tough terrain. At a height of 5,600 feet, the Kumara Parvatha in Dakshina Kannada is considered one of the toughest treks in south India. The trek extends 25 km both ways, starting from the Kukke Subramanya temple, about 280 km

Afrom Bengaluru.

Several private tourism agents and trekking clubs offer trekking packages to large groups, which include food packets, tents, and forest entry fees. So much so that forest department officials face challenges in handling the crowds at entry points. This is where baggage is checked for banned items and passes are then issued. Some serious trekkers have likened the weekend crowds to that of the Everest base camp during peak season and prefer to trek during the weekdays.

It is puzzling that the forest department has not fixed restrictio­ns on the number of trekkers who can enter the forest per day, especially since the Karnataka Tourism Policy 202026 (revised) states that “ecotourism activities shall focus on increasing awareness towards conservati­on and sustainabi­lity of biodiversi­ty and natural environmen­ts.” It adds, “The developmen­t and promotion of ecotourism shall be done after careful considerat­ion of the destinatio­n’s carrying capacity…”

The Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary, proposed as a World Heritage Site, is one of 21 sanctuarie­s in Karnataka. It is situated in the Western Ghats, which has been recognised by UNESCO as one of the eight “hottest hotspots” in the world. The UNESCO says, “Forests of the site include some of the best representa­tives of nonequator­ial tropical evergreen forests anywhere and are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species.”

When the Karnataka Ecotourism Developmen­t Board (KEDB) was set up in 2013, its aim was to “help the government immensely in protecting the wildlife, creating awareness about it, encouragin­g ecotourism, forest safaris and also prevent damage to the ecosystem in the name of tourism.” Under its objectives, the KEDB states that “the Forest Department shall encourage and permit wilderness tourism in specified areas of the National Parks/Sanctuarie­s/Forests, as a conservati­on tool. It is necessary that tourists desirous of entering wilderness areas should have interest in the flora and fauna. Casual tourists shall be discourage­d.” It adds, “The wilderness areas are sacrosanct, and should continue to sustain themselves in pristine state... the entry of the number of tourists permissibl­e shall be kept within limits.”

So, what went wrong? How did a body set up expressly to protect the sensitive ecological regions while promoting ecotourism forget its role? How did the board remain a silent bystander to the indiscrimi­nate entry of tourists into this ecosensiti­ve region?

Overcrowdi­ng damages the delicate biodiversi­ty of the region and also poses dangers to the tourists themselves. Forests are not just a source of livelihood, food, and fuel, but also act as carbon sinks. They purify our air and water and help fight climate change. Both the state and civil society have a role to play in conserving our rich biodiversi­ty.

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