Trekking clubs have exploited ignorance of regulations to lead adventurers to their deaths
Venturing into forests for a trek without certified guides is akin to walking into a death trap with one’s eyes closed. Many cases of trekkers being fatally attacked by wild animals, often elephants, and other accidents such as falling off cliffs in the Western and Eastern Ghats bear testimony to this. In the latest incident, on Sunday, a 40-year-old woman, who reportedly went trekking in a reserve forest in Coimbatore, with her husband and friends, was trampled by an elephant. In 2018, 23 people, most of them youngsters, perished in a forest fire while on an unauthorised expedition in south Tamil Nadu’s Kurangani hills. The hike was organised by a private trekking club without Forest Department permission. There have been numerous instances of lost trekkers being eventually rescued by forest personnel or locals. Not all are fortunate though. In 2014, a budding Tamil film art director vanished while on an unauthorised trek in Coimbatore’s Vellingiri hills. Far from being sensitised by these tragedies about the dangers of unfamiliar terrain and wild animals, trekkers continue to put themselves in harm’s way.
To an extent, ignorance of laws governing forest entry contributes to this. Private adventure clubs, most of them online entities, continue to entice youngsters by promising an adventurous experience in the wild. They conceal information on whether they are authorised to conduct such expeditions. In the wake of the Kurangani tragedy, the Tamil Nadu government made it mandatory for trekkers to apply for permission from the competent authority to trek on a linear route in reserve forests, and by paying a fee. Many States also promote eco-tourism by conducting organised treks along safe designated routes and escorted by persons familiar with the terrain. Such treks follow a certain rule of thumb prescribing the right clothing and footwear, highlighting the need to be inconspicuous, and maintaining a safe distance from wildlife. There is a need to publicise trekking rules and also the availability of State-run eco-tourism projects so that nature and adventure enthusiasts are not misled by touts. Using technology, the Forest Department must strengthen its surveillance mechanism to prevent the illegal entry of trekkers. As the Atulya Misra Committee, which probed the Kurangani fire tragedy, recommended, the government must fund acquisition of more unmanned, high-technology aerial vehicles, which would aid the Forest Department that is short on manpower. Laws need to be tightened to deal with violators, who are now merely fined for trespassing into reserve forests. The authorities must also monitor advertisements by private adventure clubs, both offline and online, to ensure they do not conduct unauthorised treks.
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