Conservation India received this letter from Joanna Van Gruisen on July 29th 2012. Joanna has lived in the subcontinent for nearly 35 years. She has filmed, photographed, written and been an advocate for wildlife throughout this time. Two years ago she and conservation biologist, Dr Raghu Chundawat, began a small, earth-friendly lodge in Madhya Pradesh, designed as an alternative place to stay for tourists visiting Khajuraho. It also lies close to the Panna Tiger Reserve.
Regulation and bans are two quite distinct things. What the SC has done (temporarily) is placed a ban, not ‘regulated’ tourism. For a long time many of us have been trying to persuade the Forest Departments (FD) to institute appropriate regulations before the tourist traffic became out of hand. For whatever reasons the various park authorities failed to be persuaded. We would all like to see better management of tourism, especially in those few “tiger parks” with the most pressure, but an overall ban is not the way to go. Indeed it is surprising that the Minister, MoEF has “welcomed” this move. Tourist entry to PAs is surely a matter of policy and law, and it is provided for, even encouraged, in India’s wildlife policy and acts. Any change in this should surely be the domain of the legislature not the court.
No data to link tourism to tiger decline
Tigers can clearly live, breed and thrive even where tourist vehicles are plying their territories daily. Look at Tiger Reserves such as Ranthambhore, Corbett and Kanha. The SC judges observed that the tiger is heading towards extinction – possibly so, but where is the connection of this statement to banning tourism entry in the tiger reserves? Though repeatedly touted as a problem, even the problem, nowhere has it been documented what the specific threats are to tigers, from tourists entering their domain. No data has been presented; it has merely been reiterated so often that many have blindly come to believe this. Officers and press write of “too much pressure”; in M.P this has even led to the government instituting a weekly “day-off” to relieve this. Does this really make a difference to the tigers?
No incentives for good practices
It seems to be forgotten in all the wildlife tourism bashing that this is the one industry that can co-exist and be mutually beneficial to a country’s biodiversity. In the popular tiger reserves, the tourism industry as a whole also provides more employment than even the Forest Department. We need areas around the parks to have benign industries, tourism can be the best of all; potentially it is one of the most forest-friendly industries available. The problem here and in the proposed guidelines is that there is no discrimination between the many lodges that try already to follow eco-friendly methods and the environment-damaging ones. As one M.P. official suggests: “A system of incentives must also be developed to reward those who have shown evidence of good practices consistently.” In contrast, the present suggested ecotourism guidelines throw the baby out with the bathwater!
No private lodges in core areas
The Wild Life (Protection) Act long ago disallowed private commercial tourism within National Parks. The few such accommodations and structures that do exist inside are all Government-owned or run in partnership with the Government. I think this has to be clarified as the media and indeed the courts so often confuse tourist infrastructure inside with temporary tourist movement inside. The target and responsibility for the infrastructure lie with the States not the tourism industry. Tourist movements are already restricted to certain areas and they are only allowed inside the park for 6-8 hours out of 24.
Only tigers bring the tourists
Dr Karanth, in a recent press statement that was on CI, says that tourism should be leveraged to create more habitat outside the PAs. Yes indeed, this is a worthy aim; sadly, attempts to do this on any sizeable scale have been scuppered by the Forest Department itself. On a smaller scale, this already happens as many lodge owners encourage regeneration of forest and grassland around their properties providing wildlife habitat that was not there earlier. However we must be realistic. It is the tiger that brings in the tourist. We can aim to educate people beyond this once here, but it is a fact that without the possibility of seeing a tiger, the tourist will not come. This point needs to be considered seriously, as it is the flaw in the argument of moving tourism to buffer zones. We have around 40 Tiger Reserves and a few more parks where tigers are present; but it is only those parks where it is known there is a high chance of seeing tigers (or other megafauna) that attract tourists in any number.
Project Tiger, now the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), has been in existence nearly four decades; why do we only have a small handful of areas with healthy tiger populations? If a larger percentage of the Reserves had more tigers, the tourism would be spread and the problems reduced, the “overloading” eliminated. Anyone would be happy to see more suitable habitat outside the PAs but I would be happier still to also see proper protection and habitat within the existing PAs. And of course proper corridors between these, earmarked and protected. I believe that we should all be, and could all be, part of this endeavour, but legally the power and responsibility lies with the Forest Department and, on many occasions, they have made it clear they have no wish to share this duty. The complete lack of action for the last ten years on creation of “Advisory Committees” (to include Panchayat, NGO and wildlife conservation members) for all Sanctuaries, is but one example of this. These were made mandatory in the WLPA by the 2002 amendment (see section 33B) but do any exist? In recent years several innovative ideas have been proposed for protection, with tourism, in areas outside the PA system, but so far all have been shot down.
When the Tiger Reserves were first designated as administrative areas they all contained “core” areas of National Park with “buffer” areas of Sanctuary. What has happened since Tiger Reserves were given legal definition and the Forest Rights Act came on the horizon, is that in some cases the whole area, has been designated “core or critical”. In such cases the department is looking further afield for a new ‘buffer’.
Some parks may still have forest areas contiguous to the TRs – in this case it is not difficult to include it as buffer. But very few have it all around and some have very little at all. Therefore some managers are looking to slip the ‘buffer’ label over revenue and private lands, including villages. But to what purpose and what will this mean to those living there? The FD assure villagers that it will not adversely affect them, that status quo will remain. But if status quo will remain, why is it necessary to include them in the boundary? If the FD were to join hands with other wings of the government and the public, it could be possible to keep a park-friendly ring around the PA with existing rules and regulations. This needs to be done. If the state governments had set up the Advisory Committees ten years ago, these could have acted as the controlling and monitoring bodies. Local communities and the local administration would have already been involved. Now we expect villagers to sign over even more control to the FD? We ask too much of them.
Corridors more important than buffers
So would there be any gain for the tigers? If the goodwill of the surrounding communities is lost, certainly they would lose, not gain. What we need more than buffers are corridors. Our energies outside the PA system should focus on corridors – buffers, at most, can only help protect a single population, corridors will save the species. We need to try to link the breeding populations with each other to maintain gene movement. It is not an impossible task. We have seen how far and through what inhospitable land tigers can roam. They don’t even necessarily need continuous wildlife habitat but they do need a certain level of clear and safe passage. This means goodwill and lack of blocking industries. If it can be done for the jaguar in a highly populated landscape, we can do it for tigers.
Focus on bigger threats
Over the last three decades, more than 8,000 square kilometres of forestland has been diverted for various purposes from thermal power plants to mining and encroachments. A large percent of this would have been potential tiger habitat. And it continues: “in 2011, the Ministry has granted environmental clearance to 181 coal mines, 267 thermal power plants, 188 steel plants and 106 cement units” (Centre for Science and Environment) And we concentrate on tourism as the threat? Surely it would be better to focus on harnessing the goodwill generated through tourism to combat the real threats to the tiger and other wildlife.
Banning ‘tiger tourism’ is a retrogressive action. We should rather look at creative ideas of extending tourism to other areas and activities and being more proactive in regulating the kind of tourism, and other activities, that happen around the PAs before it occurs. This is most likely to happen if we have a more open, and more inclusive, government bureaucracy. I would prefer not to see ecotourism guidelines being the diktat of a Supreme Court but this is now where it lies. The Court has given us three weeks to submit comments on the Ecotourism Guidelines. We should take advantage of this invitation to have our voices heard. To try to unravel for them the various strands involved so they can make properly informed decisions and not unknowingly accept the present impractical, tourism-killing and tiger-detrimental ideas.
This ban is a wake-up call for all involved in conservation and in wildlife tourism to take larger strides in the effort to put their respective houses in order. But it is also essential that we must work together. Appropriate mechanisms need to be put in place for this. However a continuing ban, whether total or partial, will harm not only the tourism industry but more disastrously would be detrimental for the tiger and for the communities who live around our PA systems for whom tourism has become their dependent livelihood. The law may say core areas should be “kept inviolate” but in the English language the meaning of this is “uninjured” or “sacrosanct”, something that must not be harmed or damaged. Tourist movement and “inviolate areas” are therefore not necessarily incompatible. (Indeed the Act itself implies less than total ‘no-go’ by mentioning this cannot affect the rights of Schedule Tribes and other forest dwellers.)
Good management is the key and this is what we are lacking – professional, enlightened and informed management. Let us work to strengthen this for the sake of the tiger, for all our biodiversity and for ourselves.