In a land that worships animal deities, real animals fare poorly.

Flowers on the idol. Plastic garbage for the other. The deity is sheltered, but not the animal.

Shrinking forests in India are fast giving way to agricultural land and commercial establishments bringing wildlife into close proximity with humans.

One of the areas of concern is that of religious tourism.

For some reason possibly linked to saints and ascetics who sought the calm of wilderness, many temples and religious structures can be found inside thick forests in India.

Annual pilgrimages bring thousands and even millions into close proximity to wildlife in protected areas that occupy a mere 3-4% of the geographical region.

The Sabarimala temple situated in the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala is one such pilgrim centre which has witnessed unprecedented rise in pilgrim numbers, touching millions over the years.

During peak season, which is between November and January, almost 10 million people visit the buffer zone of the park, causing major ecological disturbance and littering.

The forests around the pilgrim centre is abundant in wild animals that include elephants, tigers, sambar, wild boar, nilgiri langur, lion-tailed macaques and the great hornbill.

According to the census figures, there are 24 tigers in the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

But last year, a 40-year-old female elephant was found dead in the forest here and in a postmortem it was revealed that the animal choked to death as it contained two kgs of plastic waste in its intestine. Later, a survey conduct on elephant dung found around 37% to 90% plastic in it.

Satellite data also showed a 10% decline in forest cover in the region across 20 years, besides large scale degradation in and around the temple.

Commercial establishments have cropped up along the route, catering to needs of tourists that has led to issues of waste management.

Also, the temple board had sought for land from the forest department and was granted this under a master plan that listed dos and don'ts, with regards to conserving wildlife. However, it was alleged that the approved plan was flouted and the natural movement corridors of wildlife affected.

Now, the board is reportedly seeking for more land to handle the needs of pilgrims.

And a road ran through it

A temple festival in a village situated in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, usually lasting for two days, was extended to five days this week and permission was granted to vehicles to ply through the forest areas at night.

The reserve does not permit movement of traffic at night for the convenience of animals.

The annual festival of the Mariamman Temple in Bokkapuram village bounded by Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in the north and by Nilgiris North forest division on the other three sides, draws crowds deep into the forest. But, authorities seem wary of confronting people due to religious issues.

However, in neighbouring Bandipur Tiger Reserve, conservationists have managed using public awareness programmes to resolve similar problems.

Around half a million pilgrims and as many cattle used to converge at the Beladakuppe Mahadeshwara Temple in Hediyala range of the reserve between October and November. A carnival atmosphere used to result in blaring noise and littering all over the forest.

But intervention by groups like Vanya and others resulted in bringing down the number of shops from more than 300 to 50, while rerouting pilgrims through one of the many access roads restricted disturbances to a relatively smaller area.

Vehicular traffic on the two highways passing through Bandipur is restricted between 9 pm and 6 am as per a ban by the High Court of Karnataka, but it is still pending before the Supreme Court of India, with the Kerala government opposing it.

The Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, situated in the Western Ghats which is one of the 12-biodiversity hotspots of the world, faces similar problems.

Annual festivals

A total of 18 villages and their hamlets are geographically located inside the sanctuary, which is inhabited by about 3000 people whose main occupation include agriculture, livestock raring, casual labour and collection and sale of non timber forest produce.

But a temple complex situated in the sanctuary has reportedly witnessed the spread of plastic waste deep inside the forest, pollution of water sources, disturbance to wildlife, besides many illegal shops catering to tourists.

Forests of the Ramnagar-Yeoor range of Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra witness massive crowds during the Maha Shivratri festival, resulting in littering and sometimes even forest fires are caused by careless picnickers.

Thousands of pilgrims take over the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve during the annual Ganesh festival, with the inevitable littering and noise pollution.

A forest fire believed to be set off by a stove used by a pilgrim caused major damage last year in the hill shrine of Tirumala visited by thousands of pilgrims round the year.

The Siddha Baba Temple located in India's most recently declared Tiger Reserve – the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in the state of Uttar Pradesh sees an ever-increasing influx of people into the forests during May-June, adding plastic waste and garbage to pristine regions.

With the intervention of WWF-India, the use of plastic has been reduced drastically here.

Moreover, vehicles in the region have been discouraged from playing loud music in an effort to curb high levels of noise pollution.

Public awareness

Governments find their hands tied down, caught between the needs of conservation and risk of offending religious sentiments.

In such a scenario, creating public awareness about the imperatives of environment conservation seem the only way to save the wild.

Changing mindsets can be difficult. This is why the effort to nurture respect for the environment and wildlife need to be inculcated in young minds.

Kids for Tigers is a noteworthy effort by Sanctuary that has taken active wildlife conservation to classrooms.

But more needs to be done, especially at the rural level, if the country is to hold onto the few remaining tigers and elephants and macaques that are clinging to their shrinking habitats.