The core of the tourism issue
One has watched with increasing dismay the hysteria and mayhem (pretty muchlike ‘tiger tourism’ itself!), that has surrounded the interim order of the Supreme Court prohibiting tourism in legally notified core areas of tigerreserves for a four-week period — when a majority of reserves is closed fortourism anyway. Being sub judice, I will refrain from commenting on theorder, but focus and clarify matters on the ‘core’ issue.
Enough has been said about the genesis of this debate — the nature of the beast aka ‘tiger tourism’ as it exists in India: Monstrous resorts blocking crucial wildlife corridors even inside core areas (these are government structures, largely forest department), and the obsession with tigers which usually involves chasing the elusive cat, or crowding it while tourists have a raucous dekho. At the first instance, the WildlifeProtection Act, as amended in 2006, calls for core critical tiger habitats as‘inviolate’, based on a concept advocated by the PM appointed Tiger Task Force. This is whythe Government has prioritised the voluntary relocation of villages from such areas. It’s important that villages move out, so that tigers have undisturbed habitats, free of anthropogenic pressures and marginalised communities stranded inside forests are given the opportunity to join mainstream society. But then, on what grounds do we allow tourists or tourism infrastructure on the same land vacated by villagers?
The tenets of wildlife tourism are that the benefits should accrue to first the park itself and to the local communities who bear the brunt of conservation— whether it is in terms of human-wildlife conflict or impacts on livelihood as access to the ‘protected area’ is stymied.
Wildlife tourism is a money spinner;some estimates indicate that in India the business rakes in over one billion dollars. But who takes the booty? Gate revenue from the reserves go to the State, while revenue generated from private resorts around the reserve benefits businessmen largely based in faraway cities and metros.
A study by Krithi Karanth et al of Centre for Wildlife Studies found that the contribution of such tourism to local employment is marginal and seasonal. Plum positions in the wildlife-hotel industry are held by outsiders while the businesses greenwash themselves by employing a few locals as drivers,sweepers or gardeners. There are of course ethical practitioners who promote low-impact nature tourism inspired by their commitment to the wilderness, but these are unfortunately the exceptions rather than the rule. In fact, the few good people who chart the ethical path--struggle against those who offer an array of services--from air-conditioners and satellite television to swimming pools--and in some cases disc jockeys.
Ecologically sustainable tourism must infact be the mainstay of economies around Protected Areas--since to protect the habitat heavy industries are restricted. Unfortunately--besides the few exceptions--the wildlife tourism sector has failed to regulate itself or contribute to conservation.
Worryingly, the tourism debate is ill-informed. The Government’s stance is reflected in the guidelines that have been submitted to the apex court. While there are indeed some lacunae--one being the lack of incentive for good practices--at the heart of it, the guidelines give prime importance to the protection and welfare of wildlife and the local communities. The guidelines are detailed but the crux of it focuses on disallowing new tourist facilities from being set up on fores lands, regular monitoring, strict compliance of environment laws and a cess for resorts around ‘Protected Areas’, phasing out of tourism infrastructure within core areas and ensuring benefit for local communities. Significantly, this guideline applies not only to tiger reserves, but all Protected Areas, and also to pilgrim sites within PAs. An important recommendation, particular to tiger reserves, is that 15 to 20 per cent of the core areas may be permitted for regulated eco-tourism, subject to the condition that 20 to 30 per cent of the multiple-use buffer zones are restored to the same quality of habitat and wildlife protection as the core area within a five-year deadline.
There can be no two opinions that 100-bed facilities, theaters and restaurants within the core, like Dhikala in Corbett, must go. And that gift shops, cafes and airport-style automated toilets have no place in the Kanha meadows. It is incomprehensible what can be objectionable about restoring degraded buffer areas and expanding wildlife habitats. If anything, this will push the States not just to notify buffer areas but give them tangible protection.
Tiger reserves in India cover approximately 39,000 sq km, of which about20,000 sq km is relatively secure prime tiger habitat thanks largely to efforts of committed officials supported by good NGOs. This is where tourism is concentrated. The million dollar question is: Did the tourists come first, or did the tiger? Well, if it was the tourists, then they can rest easy — surely when they shift to the buffer, the protection they offer will lure the tiger there too? But one may well remember, that the most frequented reserves like Corbett, Kanha, Nagarhole and Ranthambhore flourish today because of strong foundations and consistent conservation efforts over the years, including the sacrifice of those villages who shifted out to give way to the wilds.
Our last remaining wild habitats face tremendous pressures — from development projects such as mining, power plants, dams, highways, roads,canals to anthropogenic pressures from communities living within and around‘protected areas’. Ill-planned, unsustainable, intrusive tourism simply adds to this pile. Any genuine efforts to tackle tourism must take on the massive tourism infrastructure and private resorts — backed by powerful lobbies — that are is landing sanctuaries, and guzzling natural resources. States must declare Eco Sensitive Zones as required under Environment Protection Act, 1986, that restrict harmful activities that gravely impact wildlife habitats ie mining,power projects etc and strictly regulate land use and activities like tourism that impact endangered wildlife.
The long term visionary solution is to expand tourism outwards — to buffer zones and privately owned lands outside ‘protected areas’ and good reserve forests, by restoring not just degraded forests but also partnering with farmers who may profit more by turning their farms fallow, and inviting wildlife, rather than farming on it and fighting crop raiding wild animals.
One oft-repeated argument is doing things the ‘Africa way’. Well, India isnot Africa. Their parks are larger. Serengeti, for example, is over 14,000 sqkm, while our largest core critical habitat is around 800 sq km. Population density around ‘protected areas’ in India is about five times more, and our parks with their dense forests do not make for easy wildlife sightings unlike the African savannah. India must evolve its own models — there are many good examples like in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary or Rambak Valley in Ladakh where local communities have a stake in tourism, thus deriving economic benefits from conservation.
Are tourists the eyes and ears of the forest? I have my reservations on that one, for the tigers of Panna and Sariska fell despite tourists, and tigers have been killed in tourism zones of Corbett, Nagarhole etc, on the other hand,there are tigers in non-tourism zones of both these and other parks.Undoubtedly, the presence of visitors in parks does increase accountability.
One significant role that tourism plays is educational , to inspire and build powerful allies in the battle for conservation, and the door is not shut on them. Tourism, however, cannot continue in its current avatar.Viewing of wildlife must be strictly regulated; facilities around parks must stay spartan and in sync with nature, thereby attracting only those who want a genuine nature experience. For rain dances, there is always Mumbai, and if seeing a tiger sums up your safari success — visit that prison they call a zoo.
Is crowding, chasing and boxing in a tiger, a 'nature' experience? Many of us are familiar with the sight of hordes of Gypsies --carting raucous crowding in on a tiger. We People get out from gypsies to attend to their 'personal business'-light a cigarette,enjoy their picnic, and take pictures of tigers and elephants --from their mobile. This can have disastrous consequences.. Unless we respect the tiger's home--and the fact that we are the guest's --we simply have no business being there.
Tiger shows of the kind practised in Madhya Pradesh, 'locating tigers--and having waterholes adjacent to tourist routes--which makes the tigers very visible--and vulnerable are not acceptable. Tourism must move out of this tiger-obsession There is more to a forest than a tiger...if only we have the eyes, and the heart for it.
Fact of the matter is: There cannot be business as usual, for in its current form tourism is consuming the very product it tries to market.
(An edited version of this article first appeared in The Pioneer)