Too close for comfort

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 03, 2012 20:10 hrs

The Supreme Court’s “ban” on tourism in “core” areas of tiger reserves has set the cat among the pigeons! Ironically, tourism was not the focus of the court order which was essentially pulling up nine state governments which had not notified core and buffer areas. It is only in the last sentence of the order that says that until final directions in the case “core zone or the core areas in the Tiger Reserved Areas will not be used for tourism”.

A core free from all human activities ringed by a buffer zone where land use is mixed but oriented around conservation is integral to Project Tiger. But the pressure of a large population and the fact that over the years, tiger reserves have steadily expanded in size has created problems. Even now, there are villages in the core areas of most reserves, not to speak of pilgrimage sites, roads and railway tracks. The court’s injunction has already borne results — Bihar has said that it has notified core and buffer zones in Balmiki Tiger Reserve and will issue a notification soon, Maharashtra is in the process of issuing a similar notification for Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and Madhya Pradesh is developing the buffer zone around Panna. “This is basically a sort of punishment for those states that did not notify the buffer and core zones in the reserves,” says Karnataka’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Dipak Sarmah. “Hopefully, they will have complied with the directive by the 22nd [when the court will next hear the case] and tourism will be able to resume,” he says.

But for now, locals and hoteliers who benefitted from the tourist trade are upset. In Bandipur and Nagarhole Tiger Reserves, which get around 75,000 visitors a year each, owners of 10 ecotourism resorts have formed an association and will approach the courts asking for a more “logical solution”. George Ramapuram, managing director of Orange County Resorts which runs a high-end resort at Kabini near Nagarhole, expects revenues to dip by 25 per cent, but says that there are others who could see receipts go down by half. “More than cancellations, people decide not to book when they learn about the ban,” he says. Up north in Corbett, India’s first national park, which attracts as many as 200,000 tourists a year, Neeraj Tiwari, manager of Infinity Corbett Wilderness, is devastated: “We are totally ruined. No fresh bookings are coming,” he says.

Of course, most hotels are running near empty now since almost all tiger reserves have closed gates for the monsoons.

  • 80 hotels in all (offering 1,421 rooms, 980 of them AC)
  • 7 hotels more than 10 years old
  • 55 hotels less than 5 years old
  • 17 hotels started in 2010
  • 6 hotels in the migratory corridor
  • 2 hotels in the core area
  • 55 hotels set up on agricultural land
  • 7 hotels set up on forest land
  • 17 weddings, 46 new year/Christmas parties, nine concerts, 36 parties and 16 conventions hosted
  • 60 hotels have generators (besides drawing from the state electricity board), 42 them noisy
  • 62 hotels did not use solar power at all
  • 20 hotels used wood as kitchen fuel, sourced from the forests or their own land
  • 38 hotels were illuminated at night
  • 42 depended for bore wells for water
  • 20 hotels had swimming pools
  • 48 hotels did not segregate wet and dry waste
  • 24 hotels disposed dry waste in dumps, one in the river and 20 burned them

Figures as of December 2009

Tiger tourism is the primary economic activity in the remote areas where most reserves are located. According to statistics provided by Travel Operators For Tiger, 18 of India’s 39 tiger reserves with significant tiger populations attract 2 million visitors a year, 90 per cent of them domestic tourists. Consolidated figures are hard to come by and verify, but last year receipts from entry fees for tourists and vehicles — between Rs 25 and Rs 1,000 — equalled around Rs 7 crore in Corbett and Rs 7 crore in Karnataka (primarily Nagarhole and Bandipur). These funds go into Tiger Conservation Funds, set up in most parks under the 2007 guidelines issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, and are used to “facilitate and support management, apart from taking initiatives for involving [local] people in conservation”.

TOFT has estimated that an individual tigress earns $110 million over her lifetime (20-26 years). The figure is based on Machhli, Ranthambhore’s best-known and much-photographed tigress, who has starred in three documentaries and has a Facebook page as well. But Julian Matthews, member of TOFT’s international team, says “This is a conservative figure, based on ‘direct revenues’ from tourism around the parks and lodges accommodation, food, park fees, photo and film fees, etc. It does not include indirect revenues — vehicles, trains, planes, hotels, etc., that visitors use to get to their destination, or books and films made — which can quadruple this figure.” In May 2009, TOFT gave “lifetime achievement awards” to Machhli and B2, Bandhavgarh’s star tiger who died in November last year, for having earned $100 million and $30 million, respectively, in 10 years.

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Conservationists, too, are by and large unhappy with the apex court order. Tourism acts as a check on poaching, they argue, by bringing to light illegal activities inside the park. “By banning tourism in the core areas the eyes and ears of non-governmental agencies have been walled out of forests where tree-cutting, illegal mining, road-building, poaching and worse are rampant… Thirty years of experience tells me that the forest departments of all states need watching too,” blogs Bittu Sahgal, well-known environmentalist and editor of wildlife magazine Sanctuary.

Key statistics
Number of tigers in India: 1,706 (up from 1,411 in 2006)
Total area of forests occupied by them: 81,881 sq km (down 12.6 per cent from the 2006 survey)
Number of Tiger Reserves: 40 (of these Kaziranga, Bandipur, Nagarhole, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench, Ranthambhore, Madumalai and Corbett have very high tourism in core areas)
Total area of Tiger Reserves (core+buffer): 51,928 sq km
Tiger deaths from poaching in 2012: 20 (there were 13 in all of 2011)
Number of villages inside Tiger Reserves: 770
Reserve with the most tigers: Corbett (214)

Valmik Thapar, who has been a member of the central empowered committee of the Supreme Court, argues, “It is the Constitutional right of every citizen to visit and observe every inch of this nation’s natural heritage… Well-managed and sensible tourism is no threat to tigers. The biggest threat to tigers comes from bad governance by those empowered to protect tigers, which in the case of India is the forest department. Both Sariska and Panna, where every tiger went extinct, are cases in point.”

Others, like Anish Andheria, wildlife biologist and conservationist, are not so sure. “Tourists do not stop poaching. Poachers operate in the dark and are very smart — there could be someone sitting in the undergrowth just 10 metres from the road and no one would see him. At most, tourists help to exert pressure when there is poaching, since left to itself the forest department will not do anything.”

They may do some good but tourists often do a lot of harm. For one, there is the fixation with tigers. “No one is interested in the wealth of flora and fauna in the forests,” says wildlife journalist Ananda Banerjee. Second, the pressure of large numbers of vehicles harms the ecology, and also disturbs wildlife. Andheria calculates that as many as 800 tourists a day enter Ranthambhore during the tourist season. “There is an urgent need to regulate the number of vehicles to, say, one for every 5 km of road length,” he says.

The other problem is that though vehicles are spread out in the park and assigned routes, they frequently converge at spots where a tiger has been sighted. Since guides and drivers are in constant touch on mobile phones and wireless devices, information of sightings is spread easily. “All the guides are interested in is getting Rs 500 as a tip for a sighting,” says Banerjee. A 2006 study, “Evaluation Reports of Tiger Reserves in India”, conducted by the Project Tiger Directorate, highlights the dangers of this. The evaluators, A S Negi and S K Chakrabarti, report that in Bandhavgarh, they saw “over 20 vehicles running after a male tiger roaring and walking on the dusty forest road in pursuit of his female mating partner. At another place an injured male […] was being hotly pursued by 8-10 tourist vehicles. In the former case when the male caught up with the female at around 7.30-8.00 am, both were pinned down by the camp elephants. […] In such a mad rush after the tigers, there was a mishap recently when an injured tigress being hotly chased by the vehicles jumped in an open vehicle and mauled a foreign visitor.”

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The mushrooming of hotels around tiger reserves — “some of them owned by well-known conservationists”, points out a wildlife activist who, for obvious reasons, does not want to be named — is wreaking more lasting ecological damage. Last year the ministry of tourism did a pilot survey of the environmental impact of 77 hotels around Corbett. Its conclusion? “Most of the hotels/resorts are just operating for commercial purposes and not taking care of the wild life [sic] and environment.” Among specific “areas of concern” it identified “felling of trees, consuming agricultural or forest land and use of non-eco friendly material” in constructing hotels. The mushrooming of resorts from Ramnagar to Mohan had obstructed a 35 km stretch of migratory corridor, blocking the movement of animals from the park to the Kosi river, it noted. Heavy traffic was contributing to air and noise pollution. Electronic signs were kept lit during the night, causing distraction and disturbance to the wildlife. There was illegal fishing and angling, and no-smoking rules were flouted by tourists and locals in Dhikala. The park authorities were also not disposing of plastic wrappers and bottles left behind by the tourists, the report said.

A similar study conducted in 336 tourist facilities in 10 national parks by environmental biologists Krithi K Karanth and Ruth DeFries and published in scientific journal Conservation Letters in 2010, looks at the socioeconomic impact of tourism in tiger reserves. Tourism provided direct employment to less than 0.001 per cent of the population living within 10 km of the reserves, the researchers found, and most locals were engaged in low-paid positions such as gardening and housekeeping, while higher-paid chefs and managers were outsiders. “Tourism is changing land use around many of these PAs [Protected Areas}. Land prices around some PAs have risen sharply; commercial facilities are purchasing land from local people are selling land to outsiders and who moving away from the PAs,” they say.

Many of these issues will be resolved once the ministry of environment’s “Guidelines for Ecotourism in and around Protected Areas”, submitted to the Supreme Court in July, come into effect. The guidelines mandate a “local conservation cess” as a percentage of turn-over on all privately run tourist facilities within 5 km of a protected area, and say that they must generate at least 50 per cent of their energy and fuel requirements from alternate energy sources. There are also strict rules for noise levels in hotels and the number of cars allowed in a park, beside a code of conduct for tourists which includes dressing in colours that blend with the natural environment.

Clearly, even if the apex court does allow visitors back into the tiger reserves, hotels as well as tourists will have to change their ways.

Indulekha Aravind in Bangalore, Anil Sharma in Jaipur and Shishir Prashant in Dehradun contributed to this article

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