Keibul Lamjao National Park: Ecotourism, potentials and scope

The idea of ecotourism is tied to taking measurable steps for the protection of bio-diversity. While promoting ecotourism, there is a need to invigorate existing management system on enforcement, administration, wildlife relations with local communities and forest management.

For better perspective on eco-tourism management of the Keibul Lamjao National Park, first, one has to familiarise with the surrounding followed by the acquisition of technical competence.

Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), the only floating National Park in the world is located 10 km away from Moirang Bazar, Bishnupur District. It is home to the "vulnerable, endangered and rare species"- the dancing deer popularly known as Sangai (Cervus eldi eldi).

Loktak Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in North East India. The oval shape lake is 26 km long and 13 km wide having an average depth of 2.7 m. Presence of 14 hillocks differing in sizes and shapes, look alike as islands, in the southern part of the lake. Thanga, Sendra and Ithing are three important hillock Islands. It has been estimated that there are altogether 425 species of animals (249 vertebrates and 176 invertebrates) which have been identified in and around the lake.

Chingjao, Pabotching and Toyaching are the hillocks on the northern sides of Keibul Lamjao. These hillocks are the playing ground for the Sangai, Kharsa and other species. The total faunal diversity is likely to be higher, as many species have not been properly identified or surveyed, say observers. The lake area also includes Phumlen, Kharung and Ikop wetlands.

Sendra, a popular tourist spot is already on ecotourism map as the area is said to have adopted conservation strategies and management plan. Thanga Island also forms the main area which provides an alternative route approaching and connecting with Keibul Lamjao. It may be mentioned that Thanga area is described as the extension of the protected area.

Those living in Thanga also depend on the park areas for livelihood. Thanga has also become an important tourist centre for the state and the most promising spot as it stands now is the "Thanga Karang" or extension of Thanga, a small island habitat surrounded by fresh water lake on all sides. Villagers use locally made boats or Heenao to connect with Thanga.

Thanga Karang's natural beauty is further enhanced by the phumdis (the floating bio-mass over which settlers built houses) in the surrounding Loktak. Phumdis are a mixed variety of water weeds and other herbivore plants species to form the bed like sheet covering much of Loktak's surface. Phumdis are composed of decaying vegetation, up to 1.6 m thick and 80% submerged, and can support the weight of large mammals floating all over the Loktak Lake. The main ingredients for forming the phumdis are Phragmiteskarka (Tou), Singut (Manipuri wahei), Saccharummunja (Kohinum), Saccharumlatifolia (Ishingkabong), Alpiniaallughas (Pubi), Saccharumprocerum (Singnang).

It is said that the Sangai likes to live on phumdis. The best season to visit the park and watch the dancing deers is between October and February.

Here, it should be remembered that tourism sector is yet to reach the take-off stage in Mnipur despite the presence of immense potentials. Moreover, the National Park lacks basic facilities for the tourism sector. There is no adequate boarding and lodging facilities surrounding the area.

However, what one needs to remember is that any plans envisaged for the development of ecotourism in and around the Keibul Lamjao National Park should be in tune with the environment and the general setting of the landscape.

These include the installation of road network within the identified tourism zone, self-guided nature trails, transportation options, interpretive centres, way-side exhibits, signages/sign boards, observation towers, public conveniences, garbage disposal facility, living quarters for staff/personnel of those who are manning the sector etc.

As of now, the presence of Sangai seems to be the only comfort for establishing ecotourism here. It is necessary to utilise natural resource management as a specialised tool for the development of ecotourism.

While keeping in mind the fragile bio- diversity of the area, several plans and proper management programme can be introduced. Keibul Lamjao National Park is open for all visitors throughout the year and the shortest route is from Imphal Airport. A one hour journey from there or a two hour journey by local taxi from the main Imphal city.

Visitors can find out about accommodation from the forest rest house, Keibul Lamjao; Sendra tourist centre, Sendra and Moirang tourist centre, Moirang. The park management provides some set of rules for regulating ecotourism.

There are route guides, trekking and interpretation facilities, to inspire and to provoke people to broaden their horizons. It also supports emerging international movement aimed at promoting "green tourism". Green tourism takes ecological tourism a step further, promoting environmentally responsible tourist operations that conserve energy, recycle waste and instruct staff and tourists on proper behaviour in parks and protected areas at a nominal charge. Only light vehicle with the route guide is allowed to go within the range of the ecological park.

While promoting the park, visitors should also be aware of the surrounding like the dwindling population of Sangai species, destruction impact of forests resource collection and importance of forests and wildlife. They should also have a positive approach towards ecotourism and development and other conservation issues despite their dependence on the forests.

There is also a need to keep open relationship with international organizations and NGOs for the protection of Sangai besides maintaining good relations with academic organization, community groups and individuals for creative innovative biodiversity and sustainability strategies based on traditional as well as increasingly sophisticated information and communication media and technology. Moreover, certain measurable step like conservation education for better prospects on protection and conservation of forests is necessary.

Ecotourism provides the necessary impetus for wildlife conservation and helps in eliciting the much needed public support. It is a responsible journey which includes taking steps to conserve the environment and improve the lives of the local people, by providing financial benefits and social empowerment to the local people.

The vision for Keibul Lamjao National Park is ecological conservation and improvement in ecosystem services within the protected areas in the interest of Sangai within and outside the National park and ensuring the infrastructure for protection and management of this landscape including the ecological tourism sectors.

For maintaining proper internal system of the park, the Sangai should coexist with the biodiversity of the protected areas. People should be encouraged to follow conservation methodologies, species research, habitat protection and strong community involvement interface structure, tapping locals to help manage, mitigate and prevent conflict between humans and animals without causing any stress on the protected areas ecosystem services.

The ideology for wildlife management is the protection of natural habitat and preserving areas of biological importance for scientific, economics, aesthetics, cultural and ecological value. Ecotourism is formulated in protected areas for raising local awareness about the biological resources, focusing local participation in the benefits of biological conservation and generating revenues towards conservation of biological rich areas. The area has to be protected against adverse environmental and cultural effects that can come with building of tourist facilities and influx of population around fragile ecosystems. The local youth and children should develop skills for ethnic art/folk dance etc. for adding extra attractions to the visitors in the areas during ecological programme.

Addition of local festivities like Lai haraobas - Ningthempokpa, Phouoibi, Moirangthangjing, Yumjaoleima, Ningthoupokpa, Keithellairembi, Khumanpokpa, Ayangleima and Chingningthou Haraoba - should be able to highlight traditional value system surrounding ecological services, cultural awareness and respect for the fragile landscape. This could be one of the many ways to "Think for one billion tourists-one billion opportunities in hands............"

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