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Avitourism in Uttarakhand

Neha Pande (pneha@iitk.ac.in) is a research scholar at and Arun Kumar Sharma (arunk@iitk.ac.in) teaches at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Kanpur.

Avitourism or bird tourism is an emerging sub-sector of ecotourism. While on its face birdwatching appears to be a benign activity, there are various unrecognised and unaddressed aspects to it. Based on fieldwork around the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, the avitourism discourse is explored and it is argued that avitourism has the potential to counter park-centric and tiger-centric tourism. However, there are many challenges to it due to the lack of sound practices and policies.

Much has been written and explored on the prospects and problems of big mammal-related tourism particularly tiger tourism in India. A recent phenomenon is the growing discourse on avitourism or bird tourism. Birdwatching and state-led bird festivals are being actively promoted in Uttarakhand. The tourism, led by the private sector, is also highly involved in birding. As Mohan Singh, a nature guide from Pawalgarh village near the Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve—one of the venues of the Uttarakhand forest department, who led Spring Bird Festival (an annual event in different remote and pristine locations of the state) in 2015—explained,

In these areas (protected areas but not national park) we cannot provide the visitors with the similar experience of viewing the tiger. That is restricted to the national park. In Uttarakhand, as many as fifty percent of the bird species of India can be sighted. Some of these birds are migratory (long distance migrants following set patterns), some endemic, some altitudinal nomads (migrating locally in the area and across the altitudes) and other local residents. They come with a variety of unimaginable colours, calls, habits, nesting patterns, etc. So, we are being trained by the forest department to use birding as a major wildlife activity in tourism.

The government in Uttarakhand is promoting birdwatching and avitourism as part of ecotourism. Avitourism has been also recognised as a sub-sector of ecotourism (Biggs 2013). The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)1 describes ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”2 Interestingly, there is a lack of critical discussions and research around avitourism in the Indian context. This article aims to highlight some of the not so visible aspects related to the emerging avitourism discourse in the state, drawing on the information gained through ethnographic work conducted in the rural areas around the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand. Interviews were held with different stakeholders, including nature guides. Understanding the meanings and experiences of the nature guides serves as an important entry point to explore the local reality of nature tourism in these areas as nature guides are the grassroots agents who are core to conducting nature tourism and are the main interpreters of nature for the visitors.3

Birdwatching and Avitourism

Birdwatching or birding is mostly described as a hobby or recreational activity involving observation of birds in their natural habitats. According to Biggs (2013: 394), “Birding, bird-watching or bird tourism is a specialised sector of nature based tourism focused explicitly on searching for, watching and enjoying birds.” Birdwatching originated in around 18th century in the developed countries, in the West. Birdwatching then was part of natural history and was reserved for specialists. Collection of eggs, nests, trophies (shooting birds), skin, feathers, etc, and sketching was part of gaining knowledge about birds. Gradually, in the 20th century as the popularity grew, ethics against killing of or harming birds while birdwatching emerged. Since the latter part of the 20th century, birdwatching has greatly emerged as a hobby especially from the United Kingdom and the United States (US). But, the regions offering a “high number of bird species and high level of endemism” are the developing countries especially in Asia and Africa. So, in the recent decades, bird tourism is making inroads in these regions (Biggs 2013: 393). With the coming in of technology, binoculars and cameras have become an important assistant in this activity (Moss 2013). In fact, in conservation with regard to the tourism sphere, “shoot with a camera not with a gun” has been a popular cliché.

Avitourism is said to be a sub-sector or niche sector of the nature-based tourism industry (Biggs et al 2011; Newsome et al 2005; Biggs 2013; Şekercioğlu 2002 qtd in Steven et al 2015). It has the potential to emerge as a sub-sector of ecotourism if conducted adhering to certain parameters and principles (refer to note no 2). It also makes sense to say that it is a special type of tourism activity catering to a particular or special type of audience or visitors. The visitors are required to (develop or) be keenly interested in birds.

Cherry et al (2018: 3) in their study on birdwatching as an environmental hobby in the urban areas of the US, distinguish between birders and avitourists. (Though for them the two categories of tourists are not mutually exclusive.) Birders for them “watch birds in their literal or metaphorical backyards.” On the other hand, avitourists will travel great distances for sighting of birds. Further, they suggest that for understanding avitourism as a wildlife tourism activity, it is the latter term that needs exploration.

Further, in the context of birdwatching, Salim Ali (1886–1987), the renowned ornithologist and naturalist, also referred to as the “Birdman of India,” writes:

Its strong point is that it can be indulged in with pleasure and profit not only by the man who studies birds scientifically, but also by the one possessing no specialized knowledge. The latter, moreover, is enabled to share his profit with the scientist who for certain aspects of bird study has to depend entirely upon data collected by the intelligent watcher. (Ali 1996: 331)

He further explains:

For indeed it is difficult to imagine a single square mile of the Indian subcontinent entirely devoid of birds. Even in the midst of scorching Rajasthan desert or amongst the high Himalayan snows, birds there are for those who know how to find them. They may be scarce and local, simple because their food happens to be scarce and local, but they are never entirely absent over areas of any size. (Ali 1996: 332)

Two characteristics of birdwatching emerge from Ali’s explanation: First, every area has potential for bird-watching. The omnipresence of birds can be ascribed as a reason for it. Second, any “intelligent watcher” has employment opportunities in this activity.

The context of growing avitourism in Uttarakhand: Uttarakhand has 710 species of birds comprising almost half of all bird species found in India (Mohan and Sondhi 2017). The state also has a diversity of geography offering a wide variety of ecosystems. This provides great potential for birdwatching and avitourism in the state. Uttarakhand has the Pangot and Kilbury Bird Sanctuary, Asan Barrage Bird Sanctuary, and the Nanda Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve dedicated specifically to birds, among other protected areas (which are being promoted for birdwatching).

The Uttarakhand forest department recognises Uttarakhand as an important state for bird conservation. In recent years the Uttarakhand forest department is seen to be promoting avitourism and encouraging birdwatching. It is interesting to note that in the state the first birdwatching programme was held in the Corbett Tiger Reserve in 1994 (Shahabuddin 2015). Seeing the success and popularity of avitourism, since 2012 the Uttarakhand forest department is trying to bring avitourism under theecotourism discourse. Stress is placed on creating and training nature guides, with birdwatching as the main focus. These nature guides are people from the local communities. This has given opportunity to the people in rural ecotourism to learn the skill and benefit. The Uttarakhand birdwatching programme was launched on 5 February 2012 by the ecotourism wing of the Uttarakhand forest department. According to the website of the Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festival4 more than 35 birdwatching camps have been conducted during the last three years at various rural tourism destinations. Also, they claim that more than 650 forest staff, nature guides and students have benefited from these camps. Since 2014, the Spring Bird Festival has been an annual event in the state.

The three reasons given by the forest department for initiating birding together with the practices observed on ground, offer valuable insights for discussion. These reasons for organising Spring Bird Festivals are: First, birding is promoted mainly as a conservation activity. Second, it is promoted as an ecotourism activity. Birding is thought to promote both conservation and local community livelihoods through ecotourism. Third, it is promoted as a hobby and professional activity.

The government is only presenting the positive and beneficial aspects of this activity. There is more to it than a simple reliance on the stakeholder’s theory in conservation (Fletcher 2009). Exploring the avitourism discourse can initiate dialogue on certain unaddressed or unrecognised realities of avitourism with regard to birdwatching in the state. Some of these can be understood as follows:

Association with pristine areas: One important aspect of the avitourism discourse in the state is that it has been linked to pristine areas. The government in Uttarakhand (forest department) is opening and promoting (newer) pristine and remote destinations as birding sites. By newer pristine areas is meant areas ecologically rich, yet not much popular from tourism point of view. (It is important to understand that pristine areas necessarily or historically have not been human-free zones.) This is reflected in the selection of the sites for the Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festivals in the state. The sites are Asan Conservation Reserve, 2014, Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve, 2015, Asan Conservation Reserve, 2016, Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary, 2017 and Thano Reserve and Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve, 2018.

Mass, mainstream or conventional nature tourism concentrates at a few destinations, which are (already) popular or become popular. By associating and promoting birding in the newer pristine areas, without popular regulations, or sound nature tourism practices, both at the top and the grassroots levels, avitourism becomes a means to promote the tourism market in new areas. Ali (1996) notes, “birds are present everywhere.” So, birdwatching has the potential to shift the already existing pressure of visitors from the protected areas. An important question to consider is what is threatening birds and how the bird festivals or avitourism addresses this. It is said that birdwatching does not involve physical consumption of the birds. But, it definitely impacts the ecosystem in which the visitor enters.

Cherry et al (2018) argue that birdwatching as an activity can be performed anywhere, even in urban areas. Thus, avitourism moves beyond the binaries of rural–urban, where rural is seen as pure, pristine and natural (Dupuis and Vandergeest 1996). The government should consider this and plan judiciously, realising the threat that the pristine and protected areas already face, due to human interference.

Commodification of nature and use of technology: Research in this area has argued that birdwatching promotes commodification and consumer behaviour where re-experiencing or finding new species becomes a passion for the birdwatcher. The presence of the birdwatcher in the field is found to disturb the bird breeding, migration and roosting sites. Many a times it is also found that due to lack of education on birdwatching ethics among the guides and the visitors and also a lack of interest on conservation among the visitors practices followed in birdwatching, has an impact on the bird habitats. Also, often the practice of baiting, such as using prey or bird calls to bring birds out of their hideouts, affects the birds and their habitats.5

Birding is considered to be a form of ocular consumption. Popular in birding is the recording of the sighting of birds as a proof as well as part of the hobby. The digital camera revolution has added a new dimension to bird photography. In the fieldwork, Rajveer Dev, of Kyari village, a nature guide (in 2017) informed that

Most of our well-paying and really interested customers are good photographers. Photography is equally popular among birdwatchers. Birds are so vibrant in colours, shapes and sizes and are so swift. Birdwatching requires great efforts to follow the birds silently and patiently. A lot depends on luck. But many photographers are using baiting to get good shots. Also, using of fake calls has become popular among birdwatchers.

Thus, as photography becomes an important component in birding, in order to get some good photographs, baiting haunts the activity, ever more. Unlike hunting, which is recognised as an illegal activity, baiting has received scant attention and is widely used. Baiting has immense ill effects on the birds, which are in the form of behavioural changes that may even threaten the species. It was observed that in the birdwatching training programmes, lessons on good guides and ethical practices were incorporated. But, the nature guides do not find themselves powerful enough to resist the birders and photographers who are in the field. Baiting appearing harmless and the lesser number of visitors for birdwatching and bird photography, makes these practices covertly acceptable. That the seriousness of the practice of baiting requires immediate action can be estimated from the information learned from the nature guides, that more or less the areas rich in birds and recognised as birdwatching/bird photography sites in the region—such as Saattal, Ghatghar, Pangot, Mehra Gaon6 and even Ramnagar (also called the gateway to the Corbett National Park)—have fallen prey to such practices. Identification of the emerging as well as popular birdwatching destinations and specific research in different geographical locations in the state are required to understand the intensity of the problem, for generalising the problem at the level of the state, and for developing effective interventions. Also, problems emanating from technology and commodification of birds need to be explored, in researches as well as considered by the government in policy documents.

The plight of ecotourism: Avitourism is being linked to ecotourism. While the government is presenting birdwatching and avitourism as a win–win initiative, what needs to be understood are the already existing flawed nature of tourism practices in the region. Unfortunately, ecotourism exists as a misnomer in many parts of the country or even around the world (Bhatt and Liyakhat 2008). The Uttarakhand government claims that such tourism (referring to ecotourism and avitourism) will promote lesser-known areas as tourism destinations and benefit locals. Research in ecotourism has established the fact that even if any (close to ideal, real or true) ecotourism venture becomes reality and successful, it gets converted to business as usual (Weinberg 2002). The situation gets more precarious in an ecologically fragile and biodiversity-rich state like Uttarakhand, when Uttarakhand till date does not even have any ecotourism policy. Moreover, there is a lack of adequate and strong ecotourism legislations and policies in India. The existing ecotourism development (practice and policy) is said to have traded off the goals of community benefits and ecological sustainability to economic benefits (Das 2011).

Nature tourism in the Corbett landscape has been dominated by mass tourism and led by private players. According to the data collected from the tourism department of Uttarakhand, there are as many as 71 hotels and resorts in the area (around 30 kilometre square), in the villages outside the Corbett Tiger Reserve. A lot many private actors in nature-based tourism around the park have been found to employ expert guides in birding. Expert birders are very few (around four names came up in fieldwork). It was learned during the fieldwork that a few nature guides employed by the private sector have been in great demand by birdwatchers (visitors). As the private players have chains of resorts, they even send the popular and expert guides to protected areas in other regions and states. Bhim Singh, around 42 years old, a nature guide from Kotabagh (in 2016) revealed,

I am into this work since the last fifteen years. Today, I serve in three protected areas in different states of India. I work for hotels and resorts. I was unemployed and nothing before I learned the skills from the forest department training camps.

The reverse is also true, that is, expert birdwatcher guides from other regions of India are involved with the private sector, providing services in this area. These guides are paid well but work for the conventional tourism model. To some extent, it can also be said that the real benefit of skills developed is reaped by the private sector. This places avitourism in the same old, nature tourism versus ecotourism debate.

Lack of visitors interested in birdwatching: A common problem addressed by the nature guides can be explained in the words of Raj Kumar, a nature guide from community-based ecotourism in Choti Haldwani (in 2017) village,

But we know our audience is different than the park-centric or tiger-centric visitors. Though the government is promoting our villages as destinations for birdwatching, visitors are interested in sighting the tiger and the elephants. During the festival time it is all hustle-bustle. That time it is mostly invited guests and planned by government and after that it gets hard for us to have the like-minded visitors.

It can be said that avitourism is still an elite or niche tourism. It was learned that these visitors usually go for specialised guides pre-booked through the dominating private tourism sector. Mawdsley et al (2009) argue that the middle class share a huge number in nature tourism to parks and protected areas in India but are characterised as being “frivolous picnickers” by the conservationists and park managers.

According to the data of the forest department, 2,84,395 national and 6,643 foreign tourists visited the Corbett National Park in 2016–17. However, visitors interested in devoting time to birdwatching are really very low. “For majority of the visitors, sighting of the tiger is a major indication of success of the trip,” was another common issue shared by the nature guides.

Avitourism has immense potential to emerge as a strong alternative or a “counter narrative” to the dominant species-related tourism (or particularly, tiger tourism in the Corbett National Park area) (Campbell et al 2008). On the face value birdwatching appears to be a benign activity based on sustainable use of nature in tourism and providing local employment opportunities. But, merely promoting it without sound policies and lack of understandings of local realities amid the rising market interest in nature tourism prevents the conservation motive embedded in the promotion of avitourism (as part of ecotourism). The problems need to be nipped in the bud. Thus, it is imperative for the Uttarakhand government to draft its ecotourism policy as early as possible as directed by the national ecotourism guidelines of 2011, given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and make provisions for avitourism in it. Also there is a need for declaration of ethical practices on birdwatching, where the government and the voluntary sector involved in conservation and nature tourism consultancy can play an important role. As per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, Sections 2(16)(b) and 13(a), baiting is similarly placed with hunting, however, little awareness exists on the harmful effects of baiting as well as its prohibitory nature. There is a need to promote information, education and awareness programmes on baiting. The local nature guides should be made more aware of (i) the long term, harmful consequences of baiting for nature, birds, and sustainable tourism, and
(ii) the legal consequences. It should be made mandatory for the private players (involved in resorts and hotels) to adhere to the new ethical norms. Installation of hoardings and sign boards may help in creating awareness about the harmful effects of baiting and the malpractices in birdwatching in such areas.

Lastly, there is a lack of research on birdwatching and avitourism in India. Research in this area from scientific and socio-ecological dimensions reflecting on the discourses as well as material practices involving the nature guides, birders, avitourists, technology and recreation, tourism industry and the role of government is needed in India. This will help in understanding avitourism better and promoting sound practices and policies.

Notes

1 https://ecotourism.org/what-is-ecotourism/, viewed on 5 March 2016.

2 First and foremost, this work understands ecotourism as separate from nature-based tourism. All ecotourism is nature-based but not all nature-based tourism qualifies as ecotourism. Further, ecotourism should involve the community at the decision-making level than mere participation (Fennell 2001; Honey 2008). There are many definitions of ecotourism. Through a content analysis of 85 definitions, Fennell (2001) considers the following characteristics to be core in defining ecotourism: natural areas as destinations, importance to conservation, respect to local cultures, benefits to local people and environmental education and awareness.

3 This report has been compiled based on the fieldwork conducted as part of PhD work on ecotourism, in villages (names referred to in the article) around the Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, since 2015. The nature guides interviewed are those who live and operate in the areas outside the park. They belonged to Choti Haldwani, Kyari, Pawalgarh and Kotabagh. Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve is located 20 kilometres from the Corbett National Park. The present report is an effort to bring to the forefront the avitourism discourse. Kotabagh is the name of the block in which Choti Haldwani village falls.

4 http://www.uttarakhandbirdfestival.net/, viewed on 1 August 2018.

5 For more information on baiting refer to (Perinchery 2018).

6 These places are not part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve area, but emerging birding sites in the state, in this region. All of them are part of Nainital district.

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Updated On : 29th Nov, 2019

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