INDIA (eTN) – Saddled with worldwide recession, falling margins, slowing demand, high inflation and bankruptcy of ideas to spur growth, tour operators and resort owners in tiger reserves across the country received yet another major setback when the Supreme Court passed an order temporarily banning wildlife tourism in core areas of tiger reserves across the country. The final order will be passed on 22 August, 2012 after hearing the recommendations of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and deciding whether to retain the ban or to allow tourism in core areas with riders, suggested by NTCA. The order is most unfortunate and one hopes tourism doesn’t finally come to an end in core areas.
My first visit to the Kanha National tiger reserve happened a quarter century ago, the last took place a month ago. During the ensuing period I visited several national parks across the country, and was fortunate to spot tigers at Kanha. Elephants were aplenty at Corbett, Nagarhole, Bandipur and Madumalai, while the sight of wild ass gamboling on the sands of Dasada in Rann of Kutch is a memory that can’t be easily erased. Spectacular bird sightings were recorded in almost all parks. Only last month we had a spectacular sighting of a herd of antelope – barasingha, sitting under the shade of a huge tree, nonchalant of our presence and impassively gazing at our passing jeep. All three predators, the elusive leopard, pack of wild dogs and the watchful tiger seemed to be miles away! Incidentally, we were in the core area of the Mukki Zone in south eastern part of Kanha. Should the Supreme Court go ahead with the final order on August 22, 2012 this tenth visit to Kanha would very well be my last visit.
What prompted the highest court in the land to take such a drastic step? Firstly, there is far greater awareness of the tiger and other predators than compared to say, five years ago. Thanks to a variety of media exposure ranging from You Tube, local & national TV channels to blogs and travel articles. Percentage-wise rise of predators is low, though methods of doing the survey are far more scientific, with camera trappings being most accurate. Methods adopted in earlier years had their flaws and more often than not, came up with inaccurate numbers. Secondly wildlife parks have far more number of local visitors with numbers reaching 200,000 per year in renowned parks. Following an appeal by an NGO from Bhopal that tourism affects wildlife, the honorable bench of the Supreme Court of India passed an interim order.
As a passionate lover of wildlife and a tour operator for over two decades, am spelling out ten reasons for the honorable bench to reconsider the decision of banning wildlife tourism in core areas of tiger reserves.
1. Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves were lesser known National Parks in the nineties, as compared to Ranthambore in Rajasthan and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh because sighting of the majestic tiger and elusive leopard were already declining. Tourism to both these parks had fallen, with few choosing to visit this park as compared to the better known and maintained parks, Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh. Poaching, manipulation of numbers and inadequate security were the main reasons why tigers disappeared completely from the park around 2008. Tourism was not the cause, secondly there were only a handful of resorts at both parks. A limestone quarry in Sariska and shortage of room inventory in Panna discouraged visitors from going to the park. As is being made out, tourists are not the villains of the piece. In fact non sighting for a long period of time was first reported by tourists.
2. Forest eco development committees constituted in villages surrounding the park are gaining from gate receipts to tiger reserves with as much as 25% being given to these committees for development of villages. For example the Kanha National Park has contributed close to One Crore Rupees during the last financial year to these committees. In all there are one hundred villages in the vicinity of the park. Here again, tourism is involved in the development story of villages where problems still exist and a hand to mouth living is very much the norm. It’s also common for tourists do make contribution of sorts on personal level to alleviate poverty, improve education and provide medical facilities.
3. In order to encourage community based tourism parks like the Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Tiger Reserve only employ local tribes to perform the role of guides and drivers.
One safari for a vehicle of six tourists plus one driver and guide costs Rs 3000/- with local tourists and approximately Rs 5000 per jeep if there are foreign visitors. Due to lack of exposure and basic language skills, in most instances, neither guide nor driver can effectively communicate. Tourists on the other hand are most accommodating and rarely complain, though foreign visitors are often comparing our parks with African National Parks, in terms of services and facilities. What is the net result? Due to the absence of communication skills and an uneasy quietness, all eight persons on board the vehicle are only looking out for the tiger. This should not be the case, considering forests have a wealth of information to offer. Each new sight has a story of its own. Once quality is improved, tourist’s obsession with the tiger will naturally die down. Another solution is for resorts to provide their own naturalist, however costs will keep on mounting considering each visitor does a minimum of four safaris for a three day stay. Tourists contribute to growth and development, though, to be fair they should be having more enriching experiences.
4. Activists and naturalist point of view of prohibiting tourism in core areas gives rise to yet another question. Are tourists not naturalists as well, will their knowledge of exotic species of flora and fauna be restricted to viewing television programs and films on wildlife. How effective will monitoring be in these parks considering visitors are not allowed. Won’t there be a void that will be hard to sustain, income levels will see a downfall, interest could wane and the pleasure visitors derive from these exotic parks would be entirely lost. We would then rely on figures given by park authorities and whet our appetites by watching films on wildlife tourism with film crew camping for six months to a year in sanctimonious areas of the forest. Is this not harmful for wildlife? Are we resigned to a life of being couch potatoes?
5. Don’t close the core area on a permanent basis, keep it closed two days a week. To be fair and to reduce pressure of constant flow of vehicles twice a day, it’s a good idea to keep the core areas closed twice a week with Monday and Thursday/Friday being most suitable days. Park authorities will get much needed rest during these two off days while the park can replenish and rejuvenate itself. Further safari timings can be reduced by 15 to 30 minutes depending on the season and time of the year. The most important is the number of vehicles allowed to enter the park each day. Considering there is too much of room inventory at places like Corbett, Kisli and Bandhavgarh, the advance booking system being followed on the internet is still the best method. Advance booking is a self regulating mechanism, the same ensures only requisite number of vehicles enter the park, which the park authorities can decide well in advance.
6. Tigers are solitary creatures, while leopards are elusive, both extremely intelligent and avoid human contact as much as possible. It’s said for every predator that is spotted, ten may have missed the eye. Camouflage helps excellent blending with the forest, hence are seldom spotted in the forest, it’s only when they cross or amble alongside dirt tracks they are seen. This does not happen on a regular basis, and may happen early morning or during late afternoon hours. Hence sighting is not always guaranteed and contact with visitors is minimized. Quite often the sound of vehicle is enough to let it wander off track into bushes, and make it return when the sound has disappeared. The general rule (after having done safari rides in several parks across India over two decades) is there is chance of spotting one in six safaris. The probability increases during late summer when tigers are often found crisscrossing into others territories, feast on the same kill and can be found at waterholes to ward off searing heat. Regulatory method need to adopted when a rare species is spotted and crowding of vehicles eliminated. Systems need to be set in place, including equipping guards with digital cameras who can record sightings and crowd behaviour. Currently mahouts/ elephant riders are provided movie cameras.
7. In a spirit of give and take the tourist must be willing to make some sacrifice as well. For example the well known tiger shows at Kanha need to come to an end. Mahouts set out with elephants early morning and on finding a tiger in dense forest inform information centre about the sighting. Tourist then drive on the motor stretch, after which they are then taken on elephant back through dense forest for a view of the tiger who may be resting or on a kill. Tourists are given about a minute and then taken back to the jeep. While the visitor who has traveled thousands of miles to savor a memorable encounter is `rewarded’ with the sighting, this could be a case of intrusion and also a source of disturbance to the carnivore. Tiger shows were discontinued for a few years in the 2000’s but commenced again. As mentioned earlier, if other experiences inside the reserve are enhanced, tourists will not mind not sighting the big cat.
8. Thirty four cats have died this year from causes ranging from old age, injuries, territorial fights, intrusion in grazing land and poaching. It is believed poaching will come to an end once the ban is introduced. With no conclusive evidence in sight between tourism and poaching, Sariska and Panna lost its tiger population mainly because of poaching; the sandalwood king Veerapan killed thousands of elephants in the forests bordering Tamil Nadu and Karnataka until he himself was killed a couple of years ago, by then the damage had already been done. A variety of reasons are responsible for poaching, these range from dire human need and greed, absence of security in a reserve, complicity of guards and trackers and lack of interest in preserving predators. In Kanha, the tiger is venerated as God by the local tribes, hence poaching is almost non-existent. The thousands of visitors who come each year to this fabulous park have in no way increased poaching because the dynamics of the local population in preserving the beast outperforms all other demands. To assume that poaching happens because of tourism is untrue, to ban all activity will probably indulge local populations to seek alternative sources of income, considering all tourism related activities like driving, guiding, working in resorts and acting as naturalists have come to a sudden end. Expecting locals to alter professions is a humungous task, considering one tribal school we are assisting close to Kisli was able to have only 35 students who were able to complete Grade V in all of fifteen years. This is credible information from an authoritative source, while the teacher teaches three grades sitting together in one room. Planning needs to follow vision, however for planning to succeed, it needs reasonable time.
9. It’s a norm seen all over in India, not an inch of space is left idle with buildings and slums built in every conceivable space, and literally consuming every inch of land. The concept of open space is foreign to us in India! Sadly the same system is followed in the renowned tiger reserves as well in the absence of legislation and regulation at central, state and local government level. For example the number of resorts in Kisli has grown from five to 40 in twenty years, while Corbett has 3000 beds for 600 visitors who can visit the reserve daily. Bandipur in Karnataka is not far behind with more resorts mushrooming over the past five years, than in past 25 years. Crowding of dwellings and resorts in buffer areas constricts space for movement and puts strain on limited resources like uninterrupted power supply, fresh water supply, and availability of skilled manpower. Quite clearly this is a prime reason for wanting to ban tourism in core areas, though justifiable, the repercussions are several and range from loss of livelihood to local communities, tour operators and resort owners. The solution lies in putting a ceiling on new development, making it mandatory for resorts to switch to solar energy for power requirement, eliminating conference facilities, bettering waste disposal facilities, to name a few. There are no easy answers for excess capacity, however dialogue can help in creating awareness that carrying capacity norms are strictly followed.
10. And finally more attention also needs to be paid to highways, both state and national crisscrossing national parks at Corbett and Madhumalai, for instance. There is scant regard for sticking to speed limits (there are no speed limits!), indiscriminate blowing of the horn, high scale bribery at border check-posts. Especially, when traveling from Bandipur to Madhumalai, private vehicles pay a bribe of Rs 100/- before being allowed to pass through. What happens during the night when vehicular traffic is restricted to large trucks and buses is anyone’s guess. Stealing forest wealth ranging from precious wood, to elephant tusks and poaching of rare and extinct species becomes a distinct possibility. Here too, the tourist is not to be blamed. Unscrupulous elements interested in robbing forests of its precious reserves are the main culprits.