Kaziranga Tour Operators Rendered Jobless as Tourism Closes due to Pandemic
“I have been giving elephant safaris for the last 18 years. But I have never seen losses like this earlier. It’s like this season never happened,” said Munna Sharma who runs elephant safaris in Kaziranga National Park.
Sharma, along with three of his other friends has been running the business with 13 elephants that they rent from different places of Assam like Guwahati, Bongaigoan, Mangaldoi, Tezpur and others.
“First the protest over CAA spoiled the peak season; that is around the New Year. We don’t usually get many safaris in February as board exams are conducted and domestic tourists are less. Some trips were made at the beginning of March, but then again the lockdown was announced,” added Sharma.
Reportedly, there are around 32 elephants in Kaziranga working with private businesses apart from the ones owned by the park authorities. The pachyderms are usually leased or rented from across the state during the tourist season for around 6 months.
Munna continued, “One elephant is rented for Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 per month. Each elephant comes with a ‘mahout’ and a ‘dhasi’ (helper). We also have to provide their salaries, stay and food for the months they are with us. Around Kaziranga elephant food is not free. We pay from Rs 80 to Rs 100 for one banana tree. Around Rs 15,000 is spent for one elephant’s feed per month. In total, there is an overall costing of Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000 per elephant in one month.”
The expenses of maintaining an elephant is quite high compared to the profits earned. Due to the lockdown these elephants were sent back to their owners. So safari operators like Sharma are hoping that the rents are waived for this season.
“We had to spend lakhs from our own savings for maintaining the elephants as long they were with us. We were already undergoing losses and don’t know how to pay the rents and our loans,” Munna added.
Kaziranga National Park is open from October to April every year for tourists and in the recent years have seen high surge in international as well as domestic tourists.
Reportedly, around 95 percent of the people living around the park are dependent on tourism as their main means of livelihood. Of these hardly 20 percent have agricultural land. The rest are solely dependent on profits earned during the tourist season.
Apart from elephant safaris, the park also provides jeep safaris. There are around 500 jeeps in Kaziranga alone and might add up to 900 if the jeeps of the all the ranges, i.e., Central, Eastern and Western ranges and the Bura Pahar areas are included.
“We don’t have any other industry in Kaziranga region. Thousands of households are earning from tourism, directly or indirectly. People are engaged in safaris, hotels, supply to hotels and restaurants, souvenir shops, etc. But this year there was practically no business. The year started with complete closure. A few tourists visited in February and March but then the lockdown was clamped. Right now people of the entire region can be said to be unemployed. A few might take to farming but I am not sure what will happen of the others,” laments Rehan Ali, an Executive Member of the Jeep Safari Association.
Bhuban Gogoi, who owns a jeep says, “Last year I earned around Rs 3 lakhs from the whole season. I earned this money from the one jeep that I have. I used to get around five large groups in a month apart from the regulars. They go for bird watching, travel and wildlife photography and others. And it pays well. Everyone earns a minimum of Rs 2 lakhs. But this year the earnings hardly reached around Rs 50,000. I have been doing this for the last 15 years. And we have to spend the year with this money.”
“Some have taken up farming. But then again we are in the high flood zone. The monsoons are coming and the problems we faced last year, I don’t think agriculture will be fruitful,” the virtually devastated Gogoi added.
Tulshi Bordoloi, President of Jeep Safari Association of Kaziranga lamented, “I cannot even start thinking how we are going to survive. Clearly we are staring at two to three years of losses. In the last few years we have seen lots of foreign tourists. But given the situation worldwide, will anybody from anywhere be willing to travel abroad? Even within India, we got most tourists from Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat and the southern states. Now all these states are highly infected. Who will care about vacations and travel anymore?”
Rehan Ali, who is also the President of the Tourist Guide Association in Kaziranga said, “We have 25 guides registered with us. They charge anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 2500 per day, depending on their expertise. Our guides are all wildlife experts. Usually the foreign tourists hire the services of these wildlife guides. Our clients are mostly from UK, France, Germany, US and other countries. These countries are so severely affected. I think we have to wait for years before we see foreigners in Kaziranga again. They used to pay well. So, all our hopes of early revival are gone.”
There are many families in and around the national park zone providing home stays and camps, apart from the star hotels and resorts. Although the big hotels have not yet made any lay-offs, these smaller business owners have asked most of their employees to leave.
Pankaj Gogoi, Secretary of Hotel Association of Kaziranga says, “The losses cannot be calculated as of now, but it will be in crores. Hundreds of hotels and home stays are registered with us. Of these many just have two to three rooms. These are completely shut down and some did not get business the entire season. So you can imagine the situation here.”
“I have a lodge with fourteen rooms. I have five employees. I will be paying their full salaries for the month of April. After that I have decided to keep two to three of them at fifty percent of their salary and have to ask the others to leave. I myself have no earnings to survive on. How can I afford their’s without any business? But I will still try to retain my permanent employees till as long as I can,” said a lodge owner.
There are many home stays and lodges with contractual employees. These part timers are left without job and any means of earning for the entire year.
Lastly, there are the many souvenir shop owners around the length and breadth of the Kaziranga National Park. They earn their living by making and selling local products like Assamese ‘paat and muga silk’ products, be it mekhela chador, gamocha, etc. Others also produce artefacts like wooden rhinos, other wildlife statues, bell metal goods, cane and bamboo products and even traditional jewelleries.
As an entire season goes for a toss and there is no hope of any tourist visiting in the near future given the world crisis due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, how will these people survive until the next tourist season, if ever there is one towards the end of 2020? Not to forget the coming monsoon floods that devastates the humans as well as the wild animals of the vast region alike, rendering all homeless and without food.
This is just the story of a few people who survive around one tourist zone of Assam.
There are many others areas like Kaziranga which are dependent mostly on tourism, like the people around Manas National Park, Sualkuchi weavers’ villages, Barpeta bell-metal industry and the other wildlife sanctuaries across the state.