Chitwan nature guides worry about futureMost of the nature guides are jobless and struggling for survival since the pandemic began last year.
Born and brought up in Sauraha, one of the major hubs of wildlife tourism in the country, Rajendra Dhami grew up hearing stories of wildlife and wild adventures. As almost everyone in the neighbourhood was somehow dependent on wildlife tourism, Dhami, now 32, could not remain untouched.
Having an elder brother as a nature guide and seeing others in the same locality also working as nature guides inspired him to choose the same path.
In 2010, Dhami started working as a nature guide in Sauraha. With an impressive academic background, it did not take him long to excel in the profession.
“As I was good in studies, I had the required information. All I needed was some skills that I had to learn from other seniors who had years of experience,” Dhami told the Post over the phone from Sauraha. “There was always the motivation to choose this profession which is also a dignified one. Nature guides like me also feel the responsibility to protect wild animals, which are our assets. I feel proud telling tourists about wildlife which are rare and not found elsewhere.”
All these years, Dhami has become one of the most sought after nature guides of the tourist town.
His responsibility, like any other nature guide, includes accompanying tourists—domestic or foreigners—on trips in and around the Chitwan National Park and informing them about the biodiversity and its significance.
But since the start of the pandemic last year, which has badly hit the economy including the tourism industry, things have turned upside down for Dhami, a resident of Ratananagar-6, Chitwan.
As tourist arrivals to the town have dropped sharply, nearly 700 tourist guides here like Dhami have lost their source of income. The Covid-19-induced restrictions and suspension of tourism activities at Chitwan National Park have made life difficult for these tourist guides.
It was in April first week when Dhami had taken a group on a jungle walk. Since then, he has been without work.
“There is nothing to do so I stay at home. It is not sure when tourism will bounce back, and visitors will start coming to Sauraha again,” said Dhami. “It’s all empty and frustrating.”
Dhami is not alone in his predicament.
Ramgir Prasad Chaudhary from Sauraha has been a nature guide for the last two years. His interest in wildlife conservation and the influence of growing up in Sauraha also made him a nature guide in 2001.
But, he says, he had never seen times like these in his two decades of career.
“I had seen obstacles when there were occasional protests and demonstrations, and natural disasters like the 2015 earthquake,” Chaudhary, 47, told the Post. “Things would get better in a few months, but this pandemic is endless.”
Chaudhary said he has been out of work for several months and his savings are depleting fast.
Chaudhary, the sole bread earner for the five-member family, has taken loans to take care of daily expenses and has started working odd jobs but even such jobs are hard to find these days, he says.
His last trip into the jungle was on the Nepali New Year’s Day, which was on April 14 this time.
“There is no work. The park is closed for outsiders so tourists are not coming,” said Chaudhary. “I am waiting for everything to return to normal.”
But there is a much bigger concern for the wildlife tourism town except hardships faced by Dhami and Chaudhary.
After bearing back to back blows by two waves of the pandemic, which rendered them jobless for over a year now, nature guides have started either changing professions or migrating abroad.
There are around 700 nature guides who are registered with the Chitwan National Park. Of them, 400 are actively engaged and about 300 are highly skilled with years of experience.
According to the Nature Guide Association, a group of nature guides working around the Chitwan National Park, nearly 25 guides have already migrated abroad.
“After being unemployed for a long time, they must have gone into alternative jobs. Others are engaged in daily-wage work or surviving on loans,” said Dhami, who is also the president of the association. “Besides their departure, another worry is that skilled human resources like nature guides, who have extensive knowledge of wildlife and biodiversity as well as local culture, are being lost. After spending so many years, they are quitting the profession.”
A nature guide’s daily income ranges between Rs1,500 to Rs,2000, excluding tips, although the income also depends on individual skills and experience. Besides, there are also salaried guides who are associated with travel companies and hotels.
“Some would even earn USD100 per day while others were getting around Rs20,000-22,000 per month,” said Dhami. “If a guide is able to work for 30 days regularly then they could earn up to Rs 60,000 in a month which is not bad.”
Battered by the pandemic, the association has put forth several demands with the government.
The demands include Covid-19 vaccine for nature guides, waiver of the annual license renewal fee, alternative employment opportunities for them, formulation and enforcement of guidelines for making the profession dignified and managed as well as introduction of strict criteria for issuing nature guide licenses.
“The renewal fee is only Rs2,000, but if the government waives it, then it can send a positive message among nature guides. Despite being jobless for a long time, they might still be encouraged to renew their licenses and remain in business,” said Dhami. “Since tourism activities cannot resume without vaccinating all those engaged in the sector, nature guides should be given vaccine so that arriving tourists, as well as wild animals, can be safe.”
The association has also demanded that the government explore the possibility of employing the out-of-job guides in other similar jobs so that their experience does not go to waste.
“It takes around five years for a nature guide to master his job. They are well-informed about biodiversity and conservation as guides not only talk about wildlife but explain their significance. This way, they are also raising conservation awareness among visitors and contributing to the protection of biodiversity,” said Dhami. “These people also take part in conservation activities in buffer areas of the park. Nature guides are skilled people and can be utilised in other conservation-related activities .”
According to Dhami, they can be employed to clear alien invasive plants like parthenium, which is growing fast inside the park, or cleaning the river.
A few months of resumption of tourism activities after the first wave of the pandemic had given respite to nature guides in the town.
Although tourist influx was not like the pre-pandemic time, the arrival of domestic tourists meant income for tourism entrepreneurs like hoteliers, transport and elephant safari providers, and nature guides.
The association said nearly 100 nature guides found work when things were normal before the second wave struck.
But things again turned worse after districts started enforcing prohibitory orders in the wake of the second wave of the pandemic. Protected areas around the country once again closed for outsiders and suspended tourism activities.
“The 2015 earthquake disturbed tourism activities across the country, including in Sauraha. However, after a few months, it revived due to domestic tourists,” said Dhami. “This time, things are different due to the fear of the virus. The second wave of the pandemic only worsened everything. People only go out to visit places when they are happy. At present, everyone is worried and living in fear, so we don’t know when things will improve for us.”
Unlike other nature guides, Chaudhary has not given up hope. He has not thought of changing his profession yet.
His hopes hinge on mass rollout of vaccines when everyone can get the Covid-19 vaccine.
“If people get vaccinated, they will start coming to Sauraha again. I have not thought of quitting my job as nature guide,” said Chaudhary. “I am waiting for the new tourism season, which begins in October. If things do not get better by then, then I will have to find some other jobs.”