Illegal adventure tourism in the forests of Kerala has been on the rise since the advent of social media, with more and more people preferring to travel through the unexplored wilderness without proper preparation.
Palakkad youth R Babu, who was rescued by the Indian Army on Wednesday February 9 after being trapped for more than 43 hours in a crevice in the 1000-foot Kurumbachi Hills in Malampuzha, was hospitalized following treatment discharged from Palakkad District Hospital. The 23-year-old slipped and fell into a deep gorge some 200 feet below the summit while descending with his two friends on Monday. After failed rescue attempts, his friends reached the bottom of the hill and informed the authorities. While the rescue operations were completed, he survived more than a day on the hill among rocks in the scorching heat without water and food. The government had to enlist the help of the Indian Army after land and air rescue failed.
Meanwhile, the lack of proper adventure tourism practices or guidelines in Kerala has led to other incidents like the one in Malampuzha. A youth fell into the gorge near Munnar in Kerala while trekking last week. On January 30, a 25-year-old tourist lost his life after falling from a 600-foot gorge near Karadippara viewpoint in Munnar, Idukki. According to officers at Vellathooval Police Station, the 17-strong team he was part of marched through an exclusion zone. In early 2021, a 26-year-old died in a wild elephant attack in Wayanad while staying in a tent at a private resort in the Meppadi forest range. The resort was forcibly shut down by Meppadi Gram Panchayat officials after they discovered it was operating without licenses.
Adventure tourism experts and forest ministry officials cautioned that such activities do not constitute responsible adventure tourism.
Illegal adventure tourism is on the rise in Kerala
Illegal adventure tourism in the forests of Kerala has been on the rise since the advent of social media. There is also a growing number of explorers and trekkers who prefer to travel through the uncharted wilderness. According to travel enthusiasts, the beauty of adventure tourism was reconnecting with nature and detaching from everyday life. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had developed a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) in 1982. Widespread natural therapy explores how being in the wild lowers the stress hormone cortisol and boosts the immune system. Unfortunately, people are now more focused on the pictures than the experience, and as a result, more selfie-related deaths are also being reported, experts say.
“Everything and everything is a social media experience. For many, traveling is all about clicking selfies and obsessing over likes. Social media has made Kurumbalakotta Hill in Wayanad a dream destination Waste management issues are damaging the ecosystem. Young tourists end up in life-threatening situations because of their excitement. Tourists injured or stranded while trekking or in the forest have become everyday news for us. Many are injured and have even died during such unprepared and unsafe journeys. I had recently witnessed two incidents in Kallar and Kuttampuzha. Babu survived largely due to the media attention he received. Those who fantasize about these places are unaware of the risks involved,” says tourism researcher and practitioner Sumesh Mangalasserry.
After the Malampuzha incident, Sheeba George, the gatherer of Idukki district, banned all illegal migrations in Idukki district. “Illegal off-road trekking and high mountain trekking in the district were banned under the Disaster Management Authority Act 2005 effective February 11,” Sheeba said.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has increased surveillance since the 2018 Kurangini wildfire tragedy that killed 23 out of 36 trekkers while taking the Kurangani route to Kolukkumalai for trekking, which was not sanctioned or approved by the Forest Service. Although the department goes to great lengths to crack down on unauthorized trekkers and agencies who lack awareness, preparation or training, Muhammed Anwar, deputy director of the Forest Training Institute, Thiruvananthapuram reveals that some still manage to enter the forest by name of adventure.
“The young people are not interested in taking the routes that are usually traversed. They find it adventurous to post pictures on social media that travel to unknown places – and explore the unexplored. However, it is important to stay safe and obey the law when adventuring. The majority has no idea that entering the protective forest area is also a criminal offence,” he says.
Muhammed goes on to explain that the forest is an unpredictable space and night time in the forest is more dangerous than day time. “Many trained experts who are very used to the forest paths have gotten hopelessly lost in the forest [in the night]. Only luck can save those who get stuck there. Animals have a pattern of movement and typically do not prefer to traverse the area where humans are located. If someone enters a core or deep forest areas, this will be observed by the animals. If you are alone, surviving would be really difficult as we don’t even have armor to repel an animal attack. Don’t bother with these gimmicks for a few likes, subscriptions and shares on social media,” he says.
S Guruvayurappan, South Indian Coordinator of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), recalls traveling with a tour group to know the precautions and preparations the team takes while trekking. “I went with them to confirm and was told that if we try to inform or educate them, they boycott us. There are many [treks] like these that sound beautiful and magical. None of [the organisers] are licensed and they are just groups of a few “travel fans”. You will receive an unofficial permit from the local officials there. We need stricter laws,” Guruvayoorappan said.
Building safe adventure tourism
The enchanting highland areas of Western Ghats, breathtaking waterfalls, deep dark forests, tranquil rivers, crystal clear backwaters and palm fringed beaches in Kerala offer ample opportunities for adventure tourism. Hadlee Renjith, a licensed adventure tourism provider in Munnar, says Malampuzha-like incidents will affect those who rely on adventure tourism to find employment. “Since trekking involves a bit of adventure, accidents can happen and the government’s immediate action is to ban all activities in this area,” he says.
Rather than taking extreme steps like imposing bans or closing routes, Sumesh suggests the government develop a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework that speaks to both people and the environment. “Considering the potential for economic development, Kerala should explore the potential of adventure tourism in the state. We need to think beyond the adventure tourism guidelines issued by the Ministry of Tourism, which is a welcome step,” he says.
Recalling the trekking experiences Munnar naturalist and photographer Sebinster Francis had during his visit to Indonesia and Kenya, he says that Keralites are used to unauthorized trekking, which is called adventure. “Most people surrender [in unsafe activities] out of sheer ignorance. In Indonesia and Kenya I saw plaques being put up to indicate suitable trekking routes. There were guided routes and non-guided routes. They also have fixed boards in trekking restricted areas and the rules are strict, so tourists don’t dare to enter them,” he says.
The three must-haves for adventure tourism, Sumesh says, are a visitor management plan, engaging local people, and having trained safety and rescue professionals on hand. Muhammed recommends the adventure tourism packages managed and approved by Kerala Tourism Department and Forest Department for the adventure lovers. “We have trained and oriented observers to accompany the tourists who can ensure the safety and well-being of the tourists. They know the terrain, so there is less risk,” says Muhammed.