Kerala youth Babu’s dramatic rescue sheds light on dangers of unsafe adventure tourism

Illegal adventure tourism in the forests of Kerala is on the rise since the advent of social media, with more people preferring to travel through the unexplored wilderness without proper preparation.

The Palakkad youth R Babu, who was rescued by the Indian Army on Wednesday, February 9, after being trapped in a crevice in the 1000-feet-high Kurumbachi hills in Kerala’s Malampuzha for more than 43 hours, has been discharged from Palakkad District Hospital after treatment. The 23-year-old slipped and fell into a deep gorge, which was around 200 feet lower than the summit, on Monday while descending from the mountain with his two friends. After failed rescue attempts, his friends reached the base of the hill and informed authorities. While the rescue operations were through, he survived on the hill side between rocks in the scorching heat with no water or food for more than a day. The government had to take the Indian Army’s help after land and air rescue failed.

Meanwhile, the lack of proper adventure tourism practices and guidelines in Kerala has resulted in other incidents such as the one in Malampuzha too. While trekking last week, a youth fell down into a gorge near Munnar. On January 30, a 25-year-old tourist lost his life after falling from a 600-feet-high gorge near the Karadippara view point, also in Munnar. According to the officials of Vellathooval police station, the 17-member team, which he was part of, trekked through a no-go zone. In the beginning of 2021, a 26-year-old died in a wild elephant attack at Wayanad while she was staying in a tent provided by a private resort in the Meppadi forest range. The resort was forcefully closed by the Meppadi gram panchayat officials when they found out that it had been functioning without any licences.

Adventure tourism experts and Forest Department officials pointed out that such activities do not account for responsible adventure tourism.

Illegal adventure tourism on the rise in Kerala

Illegal adventure tourism in the forests of Kerala is on the rise since the advent of social media. There is also an increase in the number of explorers and trekkers who prefer to travel through the unexplored wilderness. According to travel enthusiasts, the beauty of adventure tourism was to reconnect with nature, disconnecting from daily life. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries had developed a physiological and psychological exercise named Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing) in 1982. The widely practised nature therapy explores how spending time in the wilderness reduces the stress hormone cortisol and boosts the immune system. Unfortunately, people are now focused more on the pictures than the experience and as a result more selfie-related deaths are being reported as well, say experts.

“Anything and everything is an experience on social media. For many, traveling is all about clicking selfies and obsession over likes. Social media made the Kurumbalakotta hillock in Wayanad a dream destination. The site is now facing the ill-effects of over-tourism, and waste management issues are causing harm to the ecosystem. Young tourists, out of over enthusiasm, land in life-threatening situations. Tourists being harmed or stranded while trekking or in the forest has become a common news for us. Many are injured and have even died during such unprepared and unsafe trips. I recently encountered two incidents in Kallar and Kuttampuzha. Babu survived mainly due to the media attention he received. Those who fantasise about these places are unaware of the risks involved,” says tourism researcher and practitioner Sumesh Mangalasserry.

In the wake of the Malampuzha incident, Idukki District Collector Sheeba George banned all illegal trekking in Idukki district. “Illegal off-road trekking and high mountain trekking in the district were banned under Disaster Management Authority Act 2005 from February 11 onwards,” Sheeba said.

Meanwhile, the Forest Department has strengthened the surveillance since the 2018 Kurangini forest fire tragedy where 23 out of 36 trekkers were killed when they took the Kurangani route to Kolukkumalai for trekking which was not authorised or approved by the Forest Department. Muhammed Anwar, Deputy Director, Forest Training Institute, Thiruvananthapuram, reveals that though the Department is trying hard to clamp down on unauthorised trekkers and agencies who do not have any awareness, preparation or training, a few still manage to trespass into the forest in the name of adventure.

“The youngsters are not interested in taking up routes that are being traversed commonly. They think it is adventurous to post pictures on social media travelling to unknown spots – exploring the unexplored. However, it is important to ensure safety and follow the law when you set out for adventure. Majority have no clue that even entering a reserve forest area is a punishable offence,” the officer says.

Muhammed further explains that a forest is an unpredictable space and that night time in the forest is more dangerous. “Many trained experts who are very used to the forest routes have hopelessly lost their way [in the night]. Only luck can save those who get stuck there. Animals have a movement pattern and they usually do not prefer to cross the area where there is human presence. When someone intrudes into a core or deep interior forest areas, it will be observed by the animals. If you are alone, then survival would be really difficult as we are not even equipped to defend an animal attack. Do not indulge in these gimmicks for a few likes, subscriptions or shares on social media,” he says.

S Guruvayurappan, South India coordinator of The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), remembers traveling with a tour group to gauge the precautions and preparations the team undertakes during for trekking. “I went with them to confirm and learnt that if we try to inform or educate them, they will boycott us. There are many [treks] like these that sound beautiful and magical. None of [the organisers] have a licence and they are just groups of a few ‘travel buffs’. They will be granted unofficial permission from the local officials there. We need stricter laws,” said Guruvayoorappan.

Setting up safe adventure tourism

The charming highland areas of Western Ghats, stunning waterfalls, deep dark forests, tranquil rivers, crystalline backwaters and palm-lined beaches in Kerala offer abundant scope for adventure tourism. Hadlee Renjith, a licensed adventure tourism operator in Munnar, shares that Malampuzha-like incidents will adversely affect those who rely on adventure tourism for employment. “As trekking involves a bit of adventure, accidents might happen and the immediate measure taken by the government is to ban all activities in that area,” he says.

Rather than taking extreme steps like imposing bans or closing down routes, Sumesh suggests that the government come up with a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework that speaks both for humans and the environment. “Considering the possible economic development, Kerala should explore the potential of adventure tourism in the state. We need to think beyond the guidelines issued by the Department of Tourism on adventure tourism, which is a welcome move,” he says.

Remembering the trekking experiences he had during his visit to Indonesia and Kenya, Munnar-based naturalist and photographer Sebinster Francis says Keralites are used to unauthorised trekking, which is termed as an adventure. “Most of the people indulge [in unsafe activities] due to mere ignorance. In Indonesia and Kenya, I saw boards being placed to identify proper trekking routes. There were guided routes and non-guided routes. They have also installed boards in trekking-restricted areas and rules are stringent, hence tourists dare not trespass,” he says.

The three must-haves for adventure tourism, in Sumesh’s view, are a plan for visitor management, involvement of locals, and the presence of trained safety and rescue experts. Muhammed recommends the adventure tourism packages guided and permitted by the Kerala Tourism Department and the Forest Department for adventure lovers. “We have trained and oriented watchers assigned to accompany tourists who can ensure their safety and welfare. They are aware of the terrains, so there is less risk,” says Muhammed.