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A trek in the woods? Not so fast!

2017 is officially the Year of The Wild, with minister Priyank Kharge promising new eco-trails and lodges to boost adventure tourism in the state. Environmentalists firmly oppose the move although experts argue that regularising safaris and treks in protected areas is the best way to prevent unpleasant incidents.

They are the perfect getaway. Far from the humdrum of city life, the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of the state are a huge draw for city dwellers looking for a bit of quiet and solitude. Making them more attractive to  tourists and nature lovers, the state’s ministry of tourism has now decided to throw open 17 new eco trails in Karnataka’s forests in 2017, which it has declared the"Year of the Wild." Besides the new eco trails, it also hopes to open more eco lodges and jungle camps for the convenience of tourists.

The ministry has so far received the okay for nine of the new trails planned, adding to existing treks in the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary - where trekkers cover a 6 km route from Hemmadaga to Talewadi -  in the Madikeri Wildlife Division of the Kudremukh National Park, and in the Mookambika and Someshwara wildlife sanctuaries. Divided into  easy, moderate and tough, the treks are popular with nature lovers and others.  The longest covers 15 kms, starting from Makutta-Pottachipare in Madikeri.

While  Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Suresh R.S says in an official document that  the trails in the forests  are intended to provide people a close encounter with the rich biodiversity of the state, environment lovers are throwing up their hands in horror at the “increased invasion” of its protected areas.

“The introduction of new trails will prove disastrous,” warns Dr. A. N Yellappa Reddy, keen environmentalist and a former senior bureaucrat of the state.  “Allowing more people to trek in forests will only bring with it more problems than solutions. It will lead to more vehicle movement in these parts  and  not only pollute the areas that are ecologically sensitive but also spoil their natural beauty as tourists tend to litter the routes they trek on. The fauna live a serene life and the entry of humans will only disturb it. There is no saying how insensitive the trekkers will be to them,” he adds worriedly.

But the forest department counters that the trekking trails have been organised in tune with  Section 28 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.  Justifying the treks in a document on the subject, Mr Suresh says certified nature guides, who may be  tribals or local youth will provide support, navigation and information about the flora and fauna to the tourists. Toursim Minister Priyank Kharge too does not foresee any damage to the environment as trained professionals will guide the tourists.  He says the department decided to step in as people have died in unauthorised private treks in the past.

"The main benefit of organising these eco-trails is to position Karnataka as an eco sensitive, green tourism destination. Nature is the best place for people to de-stress and is perfect for adrenaline junkies as well," he points out.

Explaining that the tourism department does not have the expertise to identify eco-trails and curate them,  he says this has been left to the forest department. “Be it a dry trail or eco-trail, once it is approved by them, the  tourism department will then promote it," he adds, revealing that nine new trails have been approved by the forest department so far.

Forest dept to protect core areas
The  biggest opposition is to the 270 kms long Great Canara Trail, the longest in the country, proposed  by the state tourism department. Strongly opposing it,   conservationists say if allowed, it could harm the state’s wildlife reserves.

But allaying such fears, Omer Khaiser, a volunteer with the Eco Tourism Board of the Forest Department says promoting new eco trails in the state’s forests is necessary to regulate them  and prevent the mushrooming of unauthorised ad unsafe treks.

“These treks are certified and are not allowed at night. Also, the forest department is making sure that the core area of the forests are not touched. There is a buffer zone between the core and the tourist areas," he reveals, explaining that of the four per cent of the land in the country that is covered by forests, one per cent is labelled the core area.

" The trails will not go through tiger reserves or ecologically sensitive areas as the forest department is keen to avoid any kind of disturbance of the state’s flora and fauna. These areas are too precious and it will not risk it,” he assures, adding, “ Due to forest fires that are likely in summer, many treks will not open until June.”.

Moreover, the Eco Tourism Board has regulations in place that tell trekkers and guides what they can carry and what they cannot. “The dos and don'ts on what to wear, appropriate disposal of garbage, the kind of action lost trekkers can take and so on  are all mentioned in the regulations. Also, no vehicles are allowed as part of the trekking programme,”  points out a board member.

‘Opening sensitive areas to public will cause more harm than good'
Ullas Kumar, Naturalist and Environmentalist

Any kind of tourism in forests will harm their wildlife. People who are  interested in  eco trails are already trekking regularly. So in my view opening newer areas and that too 17 of them for eco trails, is unnecessary. Opening the sensitive areas of the Western Ghats, which people depend on for their  water resources, to tourists is  a bad idea.

The treks around the city are alright, but opening these sensitive areas to the people without training them to care for their  delicate ecology will only do more harm than good.

The government is perhaps  looking at generating revenue, but if the existing tourist spots and  those that aren’t as sensitive as the state's forests, like the backwaters of North Karnataka, are promoted, tourism will get a boost in the state and reap rich rewards.     

Currently, the Bandipur National Park charges the tourists exorbitant rates and demands a steep vehicle fee. I have seen families which go there, come back very disappointed if they don’t see a tiger, which is not the way it should be. The love for flora and fauna must be instilled in people, or they  will lack in sensitivity, leading to a dangerous scenario. They could disturb the fauna  and the wildlife may end up feeding on the plastic rubbish discarded. Education is therefore most important and without it more intrusion of forests should be discouraged.

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