Wildlife conservationists are not accustomed to morphing into wildlife tourists.
It’s not quite as simple as one might imagine. Yes, we love wildlife and seeing jungle creatures. Yes, we are used to roughing it out in rickety army-green jeeps and waking up at offensively-early hours. Yes, we know how to identify scat, pellets, and pugmarks and all the subtle signs that indicate that “Wildlife Was Here.”
But we are really not used to consorting with the modern-day, selfie-obsessed tourist. And one particular breed of tourist – the average middle-class family with children piled into a safari vehicle – is my newfound nemesis, after my recent forays into three Indian national parks.
I was not born into a family of wildlife biologists, but my family has an interest in seeing wild places. Luckily, they also have an interest in using their common sense. I was taught to be quiet while in a tour bus or jeep, to not stick appendages outside the vehicle, to not taunt or feed the wildlife, and to never litter from the windows. And all of this information was administered to me at a tender age.
Naturally, by the time I interned at a wildlife NGO at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in 2016, I was a highly-efficient and well-groomed wildlife observer. It helped that my natural (and reinforced) respect for nature was honed further by a pending degree in wildlife conservation science. But I had no idea what I was up against when I took my first safari at Ranthambhore. The tourists visiting this park – India’s tiger capital – seemed to be an entirely different species from the humans I was used to seeing.
Firstly, the noise. I was sitting beside the driver in the Canter, a large, open-top bus, waiting for the other passengers to climb aboard when it struck me that the crowd around the bus seemed to be having a gala time exchanging gossip. Irritably, I nodded to the driver and he pumped the horn vigorously thrice. This got the attention of perhaps one-fourth of the passengers, who clambered aboard. The rest paid us absolutely no attention. The driver swelled up like a bullfrog and hollered “tour is about to begin” at full volume. A few ladies dressed in swaths of brightly-coloured silk broke away from their friends and hoisted their garments, struggling onto the bus like a herd of elephants ambling up a terraced field.
It was painful to watch, and even more painful to hear their ongoing chatter. Finally, everyone had found a seat on board, and the driver forced the overflowing vehicle into a jolting gait up the mud trail. Everybody cheered. I groaned to myself. One man, bless him, pulled out a bottle of Pepsi and began a general toast to the gods in the hopes of a tiger sighting. This unconventional behaviour (or so I thought it to be) appealed to the sensibilities of the others, and one by one, people added their prayers to the congressional appeal, all at full volume, of course. The driver rolled his eyes. “This happens daily, Madam,” he told me. “If we see a tiger, I get a tip. If not, I get curses.”
The Canter rolled down a muddy slope and careened wildly around a wide-spreading tree. That was when we spotted our first animal – a grazing sambar. The sambar is India’s largest deer, with shaggy brown fur and magnificent antlers. The specimen before us was particularly handsome. The driver and I murmured to each other excitedly, and the Canter was stalled. Then, the first plump lady noticed the stag.
“Look!” she bellowed, her voice booming around the forest landscape. “Deer!”
“Sambar,” the driver said helpfully, pointing to the stag for the sake of the rest of the crowd.
“Doesn’t look like a sambar,” one young chap said critically. “It must be a nilgai.”
I half-turned in my seat to eye him. “No, it’s a sambar.” He gave me a sardonic smile and proceeded to tell his girlfriend in the seat beside him to “look at the nilgai and take a photo.” I gritted my teeth and snapped a photograph of the stag. Silence is sometimes the only option. The driver shoved the Canter into first gear and we rolled off in style, our flashy passengers waving at the stag and snapping photographs enthusiastically.
The entire ride was something of a mockery of what the Forest Department had envisioned when it initiated tourism ventures in the park. Every time we saw a deer, the entire crowd began snapping selfies with the poor spotted deer blinking confusedly in the background. One girl spent half the ride reapplying her lipstick and the rest of the ride complaining about the heat (it was six in the morning). Her boyfriend, bless his soul, fanned her energetically throughout the ride. His energy levels seemed unlimited; I wished he would spread the kindness and fan the rest of us as well. Two ladies got into a boisterous argument about which specific prayer to which specific Hindu god would deliver the best chances of spotting a tiger. When I pointed out that tigers were everywhere in Ranthambhore, yet excelled at hiding themselves from loud tourist vehicles, they increased their volume and lectured me about the proper way to conduct a safari, which was reminiscent of the British method of flushing tigers out of the forest with drums and elephants. Not the best tactic for observing wildlife in its natural state, but honestly, at that point, nothing about that safari struck me as natural.
But the worst display of poor tourism was when we chanced upon a tiger. Well, we would have chanced upon it resting had the poor thing not been surrounded by nearly twelve jeeps full of screaming tourists who had found it first. Cameras flashed, people called out to the tiger to acknowledge them (“look at the camera, good kitty, good kitty!”), and jeep drivers solidly sat and mentally counted their tips for the day thanks to such a good sighting.
I could only put my head in my hands and groan at the mockery of wildlife tourism and conservation before my eyes.