In July, the Supreme Court passed an interim order banning all tourism in core or critical tiger habitats and on the table are some central government guidelines seeking to phase tourism out of critical tiger habitats (CTHs) and from critical wildlife habitats (CWHs). Although the media has mostly highlighted this aspect, the present case involves several complex issues. Saving the tiger is a core issue in more ways than one, for we must realise that conservation is not merely a minority concern.
A tiger reserve in India used to be only an administrative unit but through a 2006 amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, it became a legal entity “including” a core or critical area and a buffer. While the core or critical areas of our tiger reserves were mostly notified in late 2007, some of the buffers remained undeclared. However, in many cases when notifying the CTH, the state forest departments had included much of what had earlier been considered “buffer”, so they had to look beyond the old national park and sanctuary boundaries for “peripheral” areas that could function as ecological buffers to the CTH for tiger dispersal and as areas where wildlife and human activities can coexist. This is also where the guidelines seek to promote ecotourism. Since many of our tiger reserves are effectively islands with little wider forest connectivity, many of these peripheral areas do not hold enough wildlife to attract any but the most avid wildlife enthusiast. Also, being areas of high human disturbance, any animals there will be more shy and nocturnal.
But why such a clamour to remove tourists from the CTHs? Advocates claim that tourism is contributing to the tiger’s decline. There is no evidence for this and, indeed, tourism has existed for years in some of the best tiger areas with no drop in the tigers’ population. Nevertheless, there is a dearth of research on the ecological effects of our wildlife tourism, so there are no data to prove conclusions either way. Meanwhile, images of unruly hordes speeding down forest roads in pursuit of the tiger and photos of tigers mobbed by tourists in a dozen jeeps burn deeply into the psyche, increasing public support for a ban. This kind of rowdy, tiger-centric tourism does need to be checked; and this can be done easily with tourism professionals, forest department, local guides and drivers and GPS technology working together. A ban is not the only solution, nor the best solution for such management failures.
The problem of poorly-sited and environmentally-unfriendly tourist lodges outside the reserves is a bigger problem and one that will persist regardless of whether tourism is allowed inside CTHs or only in buffer areas. Ultimately, this, too, is a management matter. Buffer area demarcation and the regulations for proposed protected area (PA) boundary eco-sensitive zones can help here. The media has been highlighting the tourism industry’s role and responsibility (or lack thereof…) with scarcely any scrutiny of the role of the government. Yet it is the forest department that controls and regulates visitor entry and behaviour and holds primary responsibility for biodiversity conservation, including the tiger’s fate.
In 1973, when Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger – now legally constituted as the National Tiger Conservation Authority – it was in horror that only 1,827 tigers remained. Strangely, nearly four decades on, we congratulate ourselves for being so successful in saving the tiger. But how many tigers do we have? A mere 1,706 by last count — fewer than when Project Tiger began! This is not to denigrate the efforts made over the years but have they been enough? Are the efforts still appropriate? We have an estimated 300,000 sq km of potential tiger habitat that, with protection and prey, could easily support 10 times the number of tigers we have now. Why, then, is our tiger population so low? A burgeoning population dependent on forest areas is an oft-heard, but simplistic, answer that misses the real picture and ignores both the politics of conservation and of inequality. These two come together at the point of democracy; we should examine governance and power if we wish to reach a meaningful answer.
Obscured by shrill cries of tourism or no tourism, the underlying issue raised in the present case is one of democracy, of governance. Wildlife is a concurrent subject — how far can the Centre dictate governance of the PAs to states? Can a central authority decree the kind of tourism a state should encourage, the number of tourists they may permit and the amount of PAs they may allow for this? Beyond this is the question of how long the forest department can hold on to its monopoly of the forests and conservation. Some of the new tiger reserve buffer areas encompass 60 to 90 villages. Local communities are already alienated from PA staff and increasing their numbers inside the tiger reserves through no choice of their own is a recipe for disaster. Without question these areas require democratic management.
Over 100 petitions have been filed in this case – not all concern tourism; many have been filed by communities living around CTHs – tribals, displaced forest-dwellers, villagers and even taluk merchants’ associations. These are also concerned with the lack of transparency and the seemingly arbitrary fashion of CTH and buffer notifications, even though consultation with gram sabhas is a prior condition laid down by the Act. These documents expose the nature of our forest governance and highlight the overriding need for change.
Certainly, tourism needs to be better managed; we require more true ecotourism in our fragile areas to ensure their continuing value and to bring livelihoods and benefit to those living there. But this will not happen through decrees from an autocratic government department. We require a systemic overhaul that results in greater openness, professionalism and accountability of the agencies tasked with managing our wildlife areas and an inclusive management system that involves all stakeholders in the administration of coexistence areas.
If we care for the tiger, we need to re-examine our own lifestyles and the patterns of economic development and governance, on macro and micro scales. We need to find a balance between our social, economic and environmental objectives in the short term, if we are to sustain the country’s development and well-being in the long term. Those of us living in urban areas especially, need to re-learn a respect for nature and to recognise that our life is in her hands, as much as her health and vitality is in ours. One glimpse into a tiger’s eyes can teach you this lesson in a flash.
The writer is a long-standing wildlife advocate, a wildlife photographer and former film-maker, and, of late, also a hotelier