SALEM: Two years ago, a group of youth in jeeps strayed deep inside thick forests through a muddy track and hit a cliff. Trapped without knowing the way out, they spent the whole night in the eerie zone and were rescued by tribals of Gundur in Yercaud the next day.The local police and the forest officials condoned the incident and let them go after taking up the matter with their high-profile parents.
Illegitimate trekking, both by organised companies and unorganised groups, has increased at an alarming level in Yercaud. Google the key words, “adventure camps in Yercaud” or “eco-tourism in Yercaud”. You will find a long list of companies, organisations pedaling packaged, commodified adventure and nature tours.
The tiny hill range with its fragile dry deciduous forest ecology seems saturated with tourism in every conceivable name such as nature camps, kids’ nature camp, adolescents adventure and nature camp, green getaways, tree top adventures, summer camp and so on. While the whole eco-tourism is hiding behind the canopy of coffee estates, some are permanent camp sites hiding away in far-flung estates and others are arranged by adventure tour-cum-adventure sports companies.
These promise an experience of living on the edge inside the wooded estates. “Sunny day at camp is filled with rappelling, tree climbing in the morning and engaging in some low rope course obstacles such as bucket loop, wild woozy, triangle in the afternoon, etc.,” says a kid’s camp advertisement. More dare devil and adrenalin-packed sports like para-gliding and night expedition are planned for grown ups. Trekking to the highest peaks, cycling through rough terrain, exotic wildlife, relaxing around a cosy bonfire and braving the night in tents are promised by a site located on the cliff overlooking a scenic valley.
A host of unorganised groups also stray into reserve forests and low-priced local trekking camps are also mushrooming during summer. All goes in the name of ecology awareness programmes.What concerns the environmentalists is the fact that groups go in unsafe and unsustainable numbers. Ten to 15 is a safe group beyond which nature visits become difficult to manage. The Theni tragedy happened because there was violation in the first place by allowing a group of 36 persons. Secondly, the expedition groups normally throng the hills during summer, when forest fires are high. In Yercaud range, there had been 16 big and small fires in the last month alone.
In addition, the NSS volunteers and a host of local environmental enthusiasts and walkers clubs organise trekking camps with an objective to create eco-awareness. In such programmes, the forest department gives the permission in advance and depute trained forest guards to orient the trekkers about forest behaviour, impart knowledge about hidden dangers, especially the need to refrain from taking match boxes, behaviours that would conflict with wildlife, need to take sufficient water and adhere to permitted routes only. Besides these, the Yercaud forest range office is organising guided eco-tours in association with local tribes.