Ecological Tourism has now become the new, responsible way to travel - one that preserves, protects and may even improve the environment. Thenmala, a planned eco-tourist destination in south India, hosts thousands of endangered species of fauna and flora. Still, the real impact of projected eco-tourism in the biosphere it hosts has become the subject of sour controversies.
Located in the Kollam district in Kerala, Thenmala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits at the foothills of the Western Ghats. The region is full of unique animals and botanic life — the wet monsoon climate together with the volatile temperatures through the course of passing seasons germinates a rich and diverse ecosystem. Along with other nearby tourist destinations, Thenmala is spread across three river basins — Pamba, Achencoil and Kallada. The whole area belongs to two major blocks of forests in the Southern Western Ghats — the Forests of Agasthyamalai and Pandalam Hills. The Ghats geographical features are well showcased in this zone, and several protected species live in the humid ecosystem.
A government managed facility, the location has a lot of entertainment opportunities. It is divided in three areas — The Culture, Leisure and Adventure Zones.
The Culture Zone is focused on promoting Kerala’s cuisine, crafts and natural wealth. A guided safari along the Butterfly Garden gives the visitor an opportunity to witness a large number of species in their natural habitat. The Nature Dance, an open-air musical fountain and one of the main attractions of this section, includes a synchronized flow of water, sound and light that makes for a unique performance for the audience.
The Leisure Zone is a big forest conservatory with pathways suited for a true appreciation of your natural surroundings, all while you listen to the birds chirping. A Hanging Bridge leads to the Sculpture Garden, where carved stone art pieces display the intricate relationship between man and nature. The bridge, only one of its kind in South India, was built in 1877 and is 400 feet long.
A quick walk around the Leisure Zone will take you to the Thenmala Parappar Dam, the second largest irrigation project in Kerala, surrounded by the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, a 171-square-kilometer protected area and home for rare birds, vipers and vivid foliage. Close to the Shendurney Sanctuary, you can climb up the Tropical Treehouse and get a glimpse of the wildlife around Thenmala. Situated in the middle of the forest, it’s made of bamboo, canes and ropes, and the roof is covered by palm leaves. It also serves as a watch tower for the Deer Rehabilitation Center, where the animal can be seen roaming around freely. The rehab center recovers the ones who stray out of the forest into the urban areas, and accommodates three species of deer — spotted, barking and sambar.
The Adventure Zone is a place for all the adrenaline junkies — Rock climbing, river crossing, mountain biking and rappelling are just a few of the many options to get your blood pumping. Afterwards, you can head on over to the Nature Trail, a trek in the middle of the jungle through a series of wooden sky walks.
On the road to Madras just outside Thenmala rests the Pathimoonnu Kannara Palam, a thirteen arch bridge that was built by the British in 1904. Constructed with just rocks, limestone and jaggery, the overpass stands as a historical landmark of the Colonial era. Close to the arches are the Palaruvi Falls, a fresh water stream falling from an altitude of 300 feet. The word Palaruvi stands for ‘Stream of Milk’ in Tamil, and it’s a true spectacle during the monsoons.
The rates to visit Thenmala range from INR 140 for a mini 4 hours tour to INR 590 for a complete eight hour tour with food included. However, the activities can be experienced separately for less than INR 100. Take a look at Thenmala official website for options of accommodation and trekking packages.
The Dark Side Of The Forest
To be considered a real eco-tourist spot, the area should follow a few prerequisites. Having reduced physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts; to build environmental awareness, and provide direct benefits to the local people and private industry, among other axioms.
But eco-tourism often does more harm than good. The constant flow of people pollutes the natural habitats and scares animal life, unused to human presence. Land has to be cleared out for the construction of buildings and facilities, displacing local people and wild animal species.
Thenmala itself has turned into is a case for debate. A recent report by Equitable Tourism analyzed the site, and strongly concluded that “any tourism development in the area may cause further serious destruction of the pristine ecology.” The question regarding if the park really has any direct benefit to local communities is still unanswered, and no steps have been taken for the correct disposal of garbage consumed in the place.
Nowadays, eco-tourism plays an important role in India. Its natural beauty and numerous archeological monuments gather visitors from all over the world, giving the sector a high return on investment. As the conflict between man and wilderness continues to grow, the number of endangered species and deforestation only increases. Sanctuaries that aim to preserve natural habitats are a growing necessity, but the human impact must be minimal — if possible, nonexistent.
Feature image via Kerala Tourism