I recently refused to write a travelogue on Corbett for a renowned travel magazine. With some reluctance, given that I am always scouting for an excuse, and an opportunity, to visit the reserve. But as author of a report that established that tourism is a major threat to Corbett, I could hardly cross the fence and promote the ‘evil empire’.
Wait a minute here: Isn’t tourism the best means to win supporters for the cause? Doesn’t it benefit the local economy building powerful allies in the battle for conservation? In an ideal world, yes, but like most activities tourism is a double-edged sword; consuming the very product it markets, in this case wilderness, and kills the goose that lays the golden egg, in this instance the tiger.
Let me explain: The tiger is the super star of the Indian jungle, and in most sanctuaries, tourism activity centres around sighting Sher Khan. Most park visitors are familiar with the drill for ‘Tiger Shows’—where the poor tiger is hemmed in by elephants, and tickets issued to tourists for a quick dekho of the beleaguered beast. Oh, I have succumbed too, one fine day in Corbett, racing the Gypsy all over the forest obsessed with spotting the tiger. I did, eventually. But mortified, and saddened, at the fumes and the cacophony, I left. And drove on, aimlessly, at my own pace. Watching, observing—my senses finally attuned to the rhythm of the forest. Sighted an owl, (a tawny fish owl?) sitting still, Buddhalike, on a branch above us; heard the distant alarm call of the sambar alerting its kin to the presence of a predator, surprised a porcupine who promptly raised its pricked armour… The jungle, I realised, reveals its treasures, when you open your eyes and your heart, not when fixated by absurd ‘tigerine’ ambitions.
How many visitors, though, are happy wandering in the forest ..at peace with nature? Watching the tiger in the wild is so special, but the thrill is in the unexpected encounter, a chance dramatic sighting… not an orchestrated circus that’s intrusive and not in sync with enjoying nature.
But it’s a vicious cycle, fuelled by tour operators, and tourists who dole out hefty tips for tiger spotting ensuring that the big cat remains the biggest cash cow.
It is a fatal obsession. Unethical tour operators offer ‘guaranteed sightings’, and in some reserves tigers (and leopards) are baited to meet this inane promise. They did that to a tiger, living on the edge of Corbett. I was told, off the record, that private elephant safaris enticed the animal with dead meat for the benefit of cat-obsessed tourists making it so familiar with humans that it actually used to follow the elephants. Baiting, and the consequent increasing interface familiarises tigers with humans, and they lose their instinctive fear of man. This could lead to unnatural behaviour—like killing a human. This tiger, a young male, killed a woman who entered the reserve, was declared a man-eater, and packed off to the Nainital zoo in February 2009. It was this incident that led to a survey studying the impact of tourism on Corbett. The findings were predictable, ‘eco-tourism’ is a tragic caricature of the true intent of the term. Most resorts indulged in activities hardly in sync with the destination—from throwing garbage over the wall or into the river, to noisy rain dance nights to quad biking in the heart of the forest. Also, the rush to jump on the tiger bandwagon has resulted in a mad mushrooming of resorts across reserves. Each additional structure, taking that bit away from the very wilderness it promotes.
Worse, this influx of resorts have crowded tiger habitats not just in Corbett but other important parks like Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Kaziranga, Mudumalai, blocking vital corridors, or migratory paths of tigers and elephants, which are critical for their survival. The forest department, which should be leading by example is equally guilty of the crime. How can they justify the grandiose massive encampment at Dhikala (or in Kanha for that matter) which were once prime grasslands? The desecration of Jhirna, once a quiet corner of the Corbett is heartbreaking, as is the mayhem now so integral to Gairail, once another tranquil destination within Corbett. There are so many such places across reserves, their serenity eroded, wilderness crushed under the intrusive footprint of tourism.
Rarely are the economic benefits of tourism ploughed back to the park, and rarely do benefits accrue to the local populace, who feel isolated as the profits from the tiger are reaped by outsiders who have set up business.
Yet….there is hope. Small initiatives that have made a difference, and established tourism can aid the cause of conservation. In Goa, to halt the mining of pristine rainforests in Chorla Ghats, a band of committed people got together and bought the approach road, and land around the mines. They created an eco-destination, Wildernest to sustain the venture. I remember Madhu’s childlike enthusiasm as he pointed out godwits and storks, bar-headed geese and brahminy ducks—in the Chilika lake in Orissa. Madhu used to kill these birds for a living, like others in his village, Manglajodi, Today, the villagers guide tourists, and protect birds, aided by an NGO. In Manas, I met Budhesar Bora, who in his previous incarnation had killed no less than 80 elephants, two tigers, some rhinos-but is now a fierce protector of Manas under the aegis of Maozogendri Eastern Manas Eco-Tourism Society. Community based tourism is best exemplified in Rumbak, a remote village of Ladakh in Hemis National Park. Local people provide home stays, and a privileged peep into their life, to people on the trail of the elusive snow leopard. In Arunachal, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary boasts a pioneering effort to promote scientific tourism. Researchers and serious tourists pay an amount to the local tribal council for conducting research in the forest, stay and field assistance drawn from the indigenous tribes. On my recent visit to Parambikulam in Kerala I was pleasantly surprised to see that mineral water bottles were confiscated at the reserve gates by the forest department. Water was provided from a mineral water plant run by the kadars tribe. The naturalists are also all drawn from the localcommuniteis, a practice in many parks. Some private resorts have come up trumps as well. Forktail Creek is an oasis of sanity in Corbett—doesn’t use electricity, is largely built from mud, and is obsessed with birds instead of tigers. In Panna Tiger Reserve, Vinni of Ken River Lodge runs nature study tours, works with the locals on conflict issues, and is passionately involved in conservation especially in the neglected buffer zone.
Though there are many such examples, these are largely personal initiatives. The need of the hour is a policy defining land use around reserves, which disallows tourism infrastructure that comes in the way of wild animal movement. Resorts must learn that a campfire, and setting up camp next to the forest do not translate to eco-tourism. Quite the contrary! ?
It’s difficult to separate wheat from the chaff, considering most hotels masquerade as ‘eco-resorts’. First and foremost be an aware customer. As a visitor, research well, and make sensible choices. Does the website promise night safaris, guarantee tigers and offer quad biking. Then you are barking up the wrong tree. Ask questions: that roaring campfire could be consuming trees from the tiger’s forest! And really, if I wanted to rock on ‘a DJ night’, I would simply not move my butt from the metropolis of Mumbai, or wherever. You could also look for ‘pugratings ‘an attempt to assess the footprint of lodges by Travel Operators for Tigers.
And tigers? My final word on that is the postscript to my Corbett story. As I trundled back from the rat race, my friend’s Man Friday told me that the tiger had come calling, as he sat by the Ramganga river. A huge male that cooled off in the sun, half-submerged in the water, in the manner of tigers. Did I curse and scream, rave and rant? I admit to a twinge of regret, but no, I had seen the flourishing land of the tiger, and that, trust me, was more than enough.