If your idea of travelling includes partying, blaring music, feasting and celebration, it's better if you stay in the vicinity of cities. At least don't go anywhere near the jungle or try camping. That's really not your scene then. However high handed that sounds, that is the only way to preserve our forests. And remember this comes from someone who has been visiting the jungle for the last 34 years. Especially in times when the tourism industry is struggling to get back on its feet post pandemic.
Wildlife Conservationist Vijay Neelakandan who hails from Taliparamba considers forest as his second home and has done extensive academic research to understand its ecosystem. “This isn’t just about being fascinated by wildlife. Always learn, educate about the forest and their fascinating ecology and law of the jungle.”
Three of the recent unfortunate deaths is an indicator of how ignorant we are about the wildlife. A woman was crushed by an elephant at a Wayanad wildlife resort, an elephant was burnt alive at Masinagudi and a Cheetah skinned for its meat, teeth, and skin. The culprits were arrested.
“First incident was really unfortunate and if they had taken more precautions this could have been avoided. How the authorities were able to run the resort without a license is anybody’s guess. From what has been reported, it seems clear as to how it all happened. Tents were constructed on the elephant trails. How can this be allowed? Elephants will only take their traditional route and destroy anything that comes in their way. But now the narrative has been conveniently twisted to make a villain out of that poor creature, when it was the humans who were trespassing in its habitat. Considering animals remain an invaluable part of wildlife, vilifying them serves only in dissolving some of the crucial laws of the forest ecosystem. Already the locals farming near the forests and wild animals are at loggerheads. Therefore, it’s especially important to understand about animal lives in detail during those jungle visits.”
For the last 21 years, Vijay has been an environmentalist who is involved in the concept of responsible tourism in wildlife. Strictly based on that he has observed a few things and has also worked in the capacity of a consultant and General Manager for prominent resorts and restaurants. Right now, he is involved in a project based in Kabani.
“It’s in the last 10 years that resort culture became so popular. Along with it rose several illegal resorts as well. Some preferred to call it homestays. Recently there was a government order to shut down such illegal resorts in Masinagudi. I have seen some legit run eco-friendly resorts having to resort to unethical methods following competition from such illegal resorts. The Jim Corbett National Park which is India’s best and world’s third best which earlier used to house some efficiently run resorts seem to be on the decline during a recent visit. Now it has been used by corporate companies for large parties and marriages, and some have even pitched tents on the animal trails.”
Vijay has worked as a consultant of several prominent branded resorts. “I often had to fight with them when they tried to disrupt the ecosystem. During a cottage construction in Kushal Nagar, an elephant hammered the wall. Though they claimed that such occurrences are rare, it was later found out that the construction was on an elephant trail. They later altered the construction. Once homestays get license, tents are erected the next day. That comes from the small clause in the law that Revenue land does not require special permission to construct tents. Invariably this will be located on the elephant trails or areas where animals are sighted. How can they be sure that there will not be an invasion of poisonous snakes and other reptiles? ”
Malayalee and the forests
Out of the 107 Wildlife National Parks in India, Vijay has been to 72 of them. First visit was to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. And out of the 506 Wildlife sanctuaries in India he has been to 389 of them. A crucial information he garnered from these visits remains this- “Malayalees are the prime offenders when it comes to wildlife invasion and bad behaviour.”
“So many cases of elephants bleeding itself stamping over broken beer bottles. There is a rule that one should not park their cars at Tiger Reserves. One can understand the foolishness of youth who park their cars to take selfies but what can one say to those families who eat picnic lunches there? Some even go a step forward and try to feed the leftovers to animals. The ignorance is appalling!”
For animal rights
Interestingly, Vijay is also a licensed snake catcher. “I would rather be called a snake rescuer,” he begs and admits having rescued a King Cobra from a homestay at Irutti and Kottiyoor and deposited it near a jungle. But he only rescues the ones who are found in Homes or such nearby areas. Others, he claims will find its way out.
“When I got a panicky call from the locals at Kottiyoor, I saw a cobra waiting to lay eggs. Though the forest officials insisted that I drop it to a forest, I waited till it laid its eggs and then rescued it. Haven’t you seen some people capturing these snakes and posing for the cameras? It is wrong to touch their body. Even without doing that one can rescue them. I had written a complaint to the forest department in 2016 against such ways of capturing. Finally, it required the death of Uthra for the forest department to come to their senses. It is only a misconception that the jungle is only home to a lot of wild animals. It is a huge ecosystem consisting of various varieties of flora and fauna. There are many unknown facets to a forest which is not visible on first visit. Only someone who has really understood the forest in depth can see the atmospheric difference in a forest where a tiger is sleeping from when it is out for hunting. They can quickly get the warning signals of monkeys and birds making sounds. Jungle visits should be done with that purpose alone—to study the flora, fauna, animals, and nature in detail. That is the essence of eco-tourism.
There are plans to come up with an eco-tourism project based on my experiments with wildlife. I am planning an elaborate jungle education safari complete with environmental camps and classes by experts in this field,” he sums up.
Vijay is also leading an initiative called Kannur Wildlife Rescuers which aims to protect snakes and wild animals and to assist people troubled by their presence. 37 licensed snake catchers in the district have joined hands to form this new organization. Only those with a license will be able to catch snakes or engage in any sort of activity dealing with wild animals. The group is also planning to conduct awareness classes at regular intervals so that the general public and their members would become more enlightened about the conservation of snakes and wild animals.