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The Masinagudi Forest Checkpost is behind us and we are now officially inside the forest. It is about 11-30 a.m. and the sun is creeping up from behind the tall trees, well into the noon sky. Just a few hundred metres away from the checkpost a group of men wave down the vehicles proceeding towards Theppakadu in the core area of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR).
One of them approaches us and makes an ‘irresistible’ offer. “We will help you spot elephants, gaurs, tigers and leopards. Only Rs. 600,” he says. It is not so much the money, but the promise that is enticing. Everyone wants to spot gaurs, elephants, tigers and leopards on the same safari. It’s not too specious a claim if you think of it: We were bang in the middle of the Elephant Corridor, in the buffer zone of the MTR, or possibly even the core area, and they were quite convincing.
‘Cool’ Ramesh, in his freshly-pressed khakis, has us hooked. He says the ‘safari’ will take us to the village of Moyar, where he says animals inside the reserve forest area frequently congregate to drink water along the river. He sounds so authoritative that no one asks to see if he has a permit or whether these safaris are indeed ‘authorised.’
He broaches the topic though; says that he will take us to the Moyar village along a tar road, as the forest department would not allow vehicles off the tar roads during the day. The car safaris, the kind that ‘Cool’ Ramesh and his buddies run, are technically illegal. But forest officials are wary of cracking down too hard on them. They have experienced locals getting riled by any harsh action and retaliating. They say they will instead regulate these safaris so they are safe to tourists as well as the animals.
A forest department official, speaking to The Hindu later, did indeed say that the safaris were “purely illegal” as the operators have only permits to carry people from Masinagudi Town to Theppakadu. The drivers are also allowed to take locals to their villages in Moyar and Bokkapuram but are not allowed to ferry tourists. “These drivers lie to tourists and take them to the Moyar Dam, and to a temple which they claim was patronised by forest brigand Veerappan. Ignorant tourists are misled by such claims and part with several thousands of rupees for an experience they could have had legally at Theppakadu,” said the forest official.
As action can be taken against the operators only by the transport department, there is very little the forest department can do to stop the safaris during the day along the Moyar Road.
We continue our journey on the 10-kilometer stretch, spotting a few stray herds of spotted deer, commonly seen inside MTR. We also encounter a small flock of woolly-necked stork, which our driver-cum-tour guide identifies as eagles. When we correct him, he scurries to note it down, for future reference.
As our safari nears completion, our driver tells us an apocryphal tale of how he regularly sees elephants swimming in the Moyar Dam, and assures us that we are sure to spot them early the next morning. “I know a spot where we will get a really good view of the elephants cooling off and swimming in the dam,” he says, all for another Rs. 1,000, exhorting us to call him up the next day.
This is a common tactic used on most tourists who are duped into hitching a ride with the car operators, with most coming away disappointed. A forest department staffer who regularly patrols the route says that tourists who hitch a ride on these cars often feel cheated, because they return without seeing anything substantial.
The ‘safari guides’ are ready with answers for this too; seemingly convincing answers. “If no animals are spotted in one of these ‘safaris’, the driver tells them that a tiger is very close and that the animals are keeping away in fear. This is done as a tactic to kindle the curiosity of the tourists and to ensure that there is some sense of thrill to their experience,” said the staffer.
This means a tiger is always supposedly around the corner. Sometimes tell-tale signs — we wonder if they were planted along the route — like scratches on tree marks and animal scat are pointed to and cited to construct a narrative that a fearsome wild animal is hanging around, waiting to keep its rendezvous with the tourist.
Though the morning safaris are geared at fooling unsuspecting tourists, more sinister “night safaris” are also being run that are completely illegal, putting tourists’ safety at risk. These safaris take tourists into the dense forests surrounding the core area of the reserve forest, using less-travelled dirt roads. All pretences at legality are dropped.
Many of the resort owners operating in Masinagudi have tie-ups with the tour operators. They claim to have sources in the forest department who allow them to enter the dense forests of MTR.
We are told that the night safari may well be the real McCoy, so we risk another trip at night, paying Rs 2,500 for a two-hour ride. One of the jeeps we hire for the “night safari” is decked with high-beam lights and focus lamps fixed to the sides of the vehicle. Our driver takes us off-road through the village of Bokkapuram and down a dirt road which quickly disappears, giving way to a small pathway with tire-treads, indicating they have been up and down this path repeatedly.
We quickly stumble upon a herd of elephants, barely 20 meters away from the vehicle. The elephants are restless, and charge at the vehicle half-halfheartedly before eventually backing away. A black-naped hare freezes momentarily in front of our car, dazed by the bright headlamps, before scurrying off into the darkness. Some deer look on nervously and a sloth bear is spotted. The driver gives chase to the bear that manages to flee into a thicket and we are then taken to what he terms a “kill-site” where a tiger took down a cow just a few days back. There is a heavily decomposed carcass of a cow, but no tiger in sight, and we head back. We are then taken to Mavanallah, in the buffer zone of MTR where we are told we may be able to spot the elephant they call “Rivaldo.” The elephant, which was domesticated by local resort owners, is a tourist attraction. Though we are unable to spot the animal, our driver says that the elephant can be fed snacks, and even petted, if we want to amuse ourselves. In the middle of the night, in the thick forest, he whips out his phone to show us a video of the elephant being fed watermelons and fruits by another driver of an SUV.
The forest department has been initiating action against some of these operators, especially against those taking tourists into the reserve at night. The range officers in Singara (Nilgiris North Division) as well as those in Kargudi, Masinagudi and Theppakadu, in MTR, have been levying considerable fines against the operators since 2016. According to statistics from forest officials in MTR, 22 cases have been registered against illegal safari operators since January 1, 2016, and fines amounting to Rs. 1.78 lakh have been levied. The Singara Forest Range officers have registered four cases since the beginning of 2017, sources said.
Reaction from locals
Yet, there continues to be a certain reluctance to antagonise the local operators, as forest staff apprehend hostility from locals. “A few years ago, when the department tried to clamp down on these operators, a section of these drivers set parts of the reserve on fire and we had to battle the blaze for many days,” said a top forest department official. The safari operators are said to have split up into groups, setting off forest fires and sending a message to the forest department that they are not to be messed with in the future.
Srinivas R. Reddy, Field Director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, concedes that such illegal safaris do take place and also that they were difficult to curb. He added that a majority of these safaris operate in the buffer zones of MTR, which though notified, do not fall under the unified control of the field director of the reserve. He also said that the forest department was pushing for the establishment of a forest check-post near Moyar village which does fall within the core area of the reserve.
Efforts have also been initiated by the department to bring the operators under the ambit of an Eco-Development Committee (EDC). The MTR officials are negotiating with the operators and are attempting to legalise and regulate the functioning of such safaris and tours. “We propose having fixed tariffs, regular timings, routes and other regulations to ensure that the livelihoods of the operators are protected, while the impact of illegal tourism is nullified. We also want a guide to be present in all of the jeeps to ensure that the operators conform to the norms laid down by the department,” added Mr. Reddy.
Forest department officials say that any long-term solution lies in ensuring that the current adversarial attitude between forest officials and the car operators changes, with shared dialogue and regulation of the safaris being the only option left to curb the practice that puts the lives of tourists, as well as the well-being of animals at risk.