In part one of our two-part Q&A with Aditya Panda, we discussed the veteran guide’s favorite national parks in India, which wildlife travelers will encounter on an India safari, and what it’s like to track tigers in the wild (we’ll never forget his vivid account).
Here, the passionate conservationist, wildlife photographer, and Expedition Leader with Natural Habitat Adventures shares his insights on India’s immense conservation successes—including in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Kaziranga national parks, all featured on Nat Hab’s Grand India Wildlife Adventure—the imperative of ecotourism, and the pivotal role travelers can play in preserving India’s wild places.
What are key conservation successes you’ve seen in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Kaziranga?
Kanha brought back the hard ground swamp deer (barasingha) from the brink of extinction. They were down to 66 in 1970. Today nearly a thousand barasingha adorn the meadows of Kanha and about 100 have been reintroduced to form a second “insurance” population at Satpura Tiger Reserve, 300 miles away.
Bandhavgarh lost its entire population of gaur (India bison) in the 1990s. The species was reintroduced in the following decade and now the world’s largest wild bovine is well established there again. Both these reserves are flagships of India’s tiger conservation efforts and are home to some of the largest breeding populations of tigers.
Kaziranga has seen a century of conservation. The greater one-horned rhinoceros is one of the best conservation success stories of the 20th century, and Kaziranga single-handedly deserves credit for that. These reserves have consistently exhibited the strongest protection approaches and well-managed tourism practices that directly benefit conservation.
Which threats remain to national parks in India?
India is the world’s second-most populous country and is extremely land starved. Holding aside land for wildlife is an inherently conflicted matter. High rates of infrastructural growth and increasing urbanization mean that wildlife landscapes are getting fragmented. Large mammals are usually large ranging creatures and require unhindered right of way through natural landscapes across vast distances.
There are also threats from extractive livelihood practices. Grazing livestock in wildlife habitats not only causes deer and wild ungulates to be outcompeted for forage, but it also brings in the risk of communicable diseases to wildlife. Predation of livestock by tigers and leopards causes human-wildlife conflict. The collection of forest products such as firewood, fruit and resins also causes habitat deterioration, forest fires and human-wildlife conflict. And the threat of poaching always exists. This can range from snaring and bushmeat hunting that depletes prey base for large carnivores to the poaching of tigers, leopards, Asian elephants and one-horned rhinoceros for the international trade in wild animal parts.
Fortunately, the nature parks we visit on the Grand India Wildlife Adventure are living examples of how these challenges to wildlife conservation can be effectively managed. That’s why they’re such rich repositories of wildlife, enabling us to enjoy and learn about these beautiful animals and their habitats that we so love.
Is ecotourism essential to saving India’s wildlife sanctuaries?
Yes. It is absolutely essential. It’s no coincidence that the most famous reserves on India safari itineraries are the ones that have consistently shown best conservation practices and wildlife population growth.
The most important way in which ecotourism benefits conservation is that it offers local communities a more positive way to interact with surrounding habitats. With shrinking forests and exponential growth in human population, resource extractive livelihood practices are no longer sustainable for communities that live around forests. Ecotourism offers much better and safer livelihoods. The best thing is that these opportunities occur at scale, benefitting many villages, and aren’t token. Jobs include park guides; jeep drivers and owners; lodge staff, suppliers and owners; and many wildlife tourism entrepreneurs. The opportunities are endless.
Ecotourism also earns direct revenues for the reserves, providing large amounts of liquid funds used to address human-wildlife conflicts, hire additional protection and fund research. What’s more, travelers on an India safari serve as additional eyes that not only keep away poachers and timber smugglers, but also help monitor the state of our reserves.
The most long-term impact of ecotourism, though, is the goodwill it builds for wildlife in the hearts of people. Indian wildlife reserves are visited not just by overseas visitors but also a very large proportion of domestic travelers. These ecotourists not only educate themselves about the natural world, but they also become more aware of it and this in turn helps build a better society that values wildlife and wild spaces.
What are tangible actions travelers can take to help protect India’s wildlife?
The single most important thing that a prospective ecotourist can do is to find a responsible, ethical travel company with a strong background of sustainable travel. This will automatically ensure that at every stage of their journey, that company will strive towards carbon neutrality, responsible practices, meaningful conservation education and a meaningful nature experience.
And when we return home?
As a Nat Hab Expedition Leader, I deeply love what I do. Combined with the kind of wilderness experience visitors enjoy here, the magnetic charm of the tiger, the heartwarming sight of elephant families, it’s only natural that my passion rubs off on them and they turn into ambassadors for India’s wildlife. Because thousands of livelihoods depend upon guests, one of the best things travelers can do when they return home is to encourage others to visit high conservation-value destinations like Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Kaziranga.
Public discourse has always played a great influence on conservation policies. The opinions that international travelers provide—be it directly to the park managements, local governments or even their own governments—along with what’s discussed on social media always plays a big role in drawing attention to conservation issues. Something as simple as guests providing a slideshow from their Grand India Wildlife Adventure at a local club or community center can trigger interest and awareness about wildlife conservation in India. Last, but not least, by traveling with Nat Hab, you’re also contributing to World Wildlife Fund‘s global conservation efforts.