This rain dance is toxic

This can be apocalyptic for perhaps the only success story of tiger preservation. The precious Jim Corbett National Park is stalked by real estate and tourist lobbies, violating every code of the wild
Akash Bisht Delhi

For many decades, tiger habitats had different laws that governed lives of those who shared space with the beautiful beast. The pug marks on a jungle trail, the scratches on trees and 'tiger piss' around to mark territory, or the whistling breeze carrying the odour of the majestic, the elusive and shy tiger served as a firm reiteration of who ruled the jungle. By the same token, enduring respect to the big cat was shown earlier in precious and protected wildlife reserves like the Jim Corbett National Park, until mindless commercialisation in the form of mushrooming tourist resorts and aggressive tourists and real estate mafia began to openly subvert the jungle's unwritten contract and the laws of the land. 

One of the few success stories of tiger conservation - the Jim Corbett National Park - has helped in stabilising the tiger population, despite the rapid, dangerously declining figures all over the country. There are 160-170 big cats in the park - which makes it one of the highest in terms of the density of tiger population. Indeed, 'Project Tiger' may have been able to protect this endangered species from immediate extinction, but renewed threats to it are looming in the horizon in different and sinister forms.

Despite the presence of wildlife wardens and the Jim Corbett National Park being treated as a 'national treasure', serious threat has always stared at the tigers from organised poachers, who smuggle animal parts out of India. Now they have to contend with a new foe in the form of insensitive and unsustainable real estate infrastructure, 'wildlife tourism' and other touristy gimmicks by city sleekers seeking quick, vicarious entertainment. Worse, the new resorts have come up on the Kosi river corridor that links Corbett to the Ramnagar Forest Division, thus confining the tigers (and other animals, including elephants) to a very narrow space, blocking the seasonal and inherited animal corridors. Now, they do not have the freedom to use this blocked corridor to move further up. 

A recent study by the Union ministry of tourism to assess and understand the impact of increasing tourism activities in and around the Corbett Tiger Reserve reveals how more than 102 resorts in the park are threatening the very survival of tigers, other animals and birds. Most of these resorts are brazenly flouting all environmental rules, and posing a deadly threat to all life forms.

The report emphatically reiterates that wildlife corridors are crucial ecological nervous systems as they facilitate the movement of the tiger, connects the scarce populations of tigers to other forests and assists in improving habitat fragmentation. "Corridors are critical for the long-term genetic viability of tigers, and also for maintaining large, effective, breeding populations. Isolated populations are at far greater risk of local extinction," the report states categorically. To secure tiger and elephant population of Corbett, corridors are crucial.

The report reckons that Dhikuli on the eastern part of the Corbett Reserve has more than 65 resorts while several others are under construction. Sundarkhal near Dhikuli also has a large illegal settlement that has grown with political patronage. Together, they block the precious Kosi wildlife corridor that connects the Corbett Reserve to Sitabani and other forests in the Ramnagar Forest Division. Some of these swanky resorts are very close to the Kosi river bank ensuring riverside view for their guests.

The Wildlife Institute of India has identified it among the 10 most important wildlife corridors vital for tiger conservation. Nearby, in the Almora Forest Division, a government-owned factory of Indian Medical Pharmaceutical Limited is also blocking the corridors. All these structures are gradually poisoning and ravaging the eco-diversity of this region.

The report also mentions how a small passage at Ringoda that is used by tigers to move to adjoining forests is mostly blocked by animal safaris and tourist jeeps making it impossible for the animals to cross over. It was here that a tiger was killed by a speeding bus in December 2007. Another small passage at Garajia -- considered a tiger hotspot - bears a similar fate and is often overcrowded with visitors. In short, the tiger is gradually being driven into a corner even in this treasured spot and forced to conform to needs of marauding tourists, miscellaneous middle-men and resort owners.

This spike in   led to a frenetic rush for land in the adjoining areas where village lands have turned into gold mines. This is leading to the park being crowded from all sides, causing grave concern for tiger conservationists. "Corbett is proving to be a complex case, as the park and its adjoining areas are witnessing a change in the land use. Tourism will have long-term implications and it is very disturbing," says Sameer Sinha, Head, Traffic India.

Also, a huge sum of floating money linked to tourism and related activities lures (or might lure) forest guards and rangers, otherwise entrusted with the task of protecting the reserve. "Instead of doing their duty, there is a danger that these guards and staffers might turn forest guides for cash-rich tourists, who seem to be least interested in the beautiful nuances of nature, wildlife, animals, birds and trees, who refuse to follow the code of the jungle, dirtying forests with plastic and waste," says Joel Lyall, veteran researcher of Jim Corbett's life and writer of Jungle Tales.  "These insensitive people do not understand that this is not a shopping mall, they are intruding into tiger territory, and the tiger is a deeply shy, reclusive creature," he reckons.

Apart from the Dhikuli corridor, other corridors in the north and northeast are also falling victim to this mindless tourism. The Belpadao-Kotabagh corridor, part of the buffer area, with rich tiger habitat, is witnessing big construction projects. Additionally, Kotabagh will soon have sizeable industrial development as planned by the 'visionary' BJP-led Uttarakhand government. This will only add to the real estate pressure on forested tiger habitat, forcing them to be cornered in  fortified areas.

The four angling resorts inside the reserve are blatantly flouting the rules. Most of the land near Jamoon, a tiger hotbed, has been bought by real estate builders. Resorts in Jamoon are hosting bike races, quad biking and zorbing on dirt tracks alongside the protected Ramganga river. The report mentions, "The peace of the forest is shattered by racing very noisy bikes on 'adventure' tracks built on the riverbed. In the protected Ramganga river you can dive, go kayaking, and rafting." 

However, the Congress-led central government has refused to take responsibility, shifting blame, arguing that these permissions were granted by the state government. "The ministry of tourism (MoT) will now frame guidelines for the construction of hotels and resorts in the eco-fragile region," Sujit Banerjee, secretary, MoT told Hardnews in an e-mail interview. What about the existing hotels and resorts ones, and those in the vicinity of  the park?

The intense pressure on the reserve can be gauged from the fact that more than 2 lakh people visit the park each year and 150 vehicles with 600 people are allowed inside the park everyday. A tourist apocalypse is on the cards with grave dangers of air and noise pollution. There are weddings, rain dances and late night parties with music at full blast in fringe and core areas of the forest. Huge quantities of garbage, including non-biodegradable junk is regularly dumped in the jungles.

A new style of deadly tourism is mushrooming in the garb of 'eco-tourism' leading to increasing man-animal conflict. The MoT report states: "Most resorts are 'party' and fancy wedding destinations. More than three‐fourths of the resorts reportedly offer DJ nights, rain dances and discotheques." The uncanny question is that do we want to promote this kind of dangerous tourism near India's prime tiger habitat, when so many national parks have faced total tiger elimination?

"What is the guarantee that poachers will not take advantage of this touristy vulgarity and use it as a camouflage to set up base? And if these rich guys want to have their fancy parties, why don't they go to the farm houses near Delhi or to five star hotels? Why choose these ecological heritage zones inside pristine nature, with which they have no emotional, ecological or knowledge connect?" says an angry environmentalist.

Says an Belinda Wright, tiger conservationist: "Resorts in reserves cater to parties, weddings and rain dances which is beyond my understanding. Why should people go there for such events? These reserves should be strictly for wildlife tourism and authorities should not encourage this senseless mess."

 "It's just like a Hindi film if you need dance, the resorts will arrange for that. If you want rain dance, they will arrange for that too. These resorts provide whatever people ask for, totally misusing eco-tourism and increasing  chances of human-animal conflict," says Sinha. 
The other worrisome factors are that most of these resorts assure tiger sightings and often offer baits to lure them. The report suggests that tigers often follow elephant safaris because the resorts offer baits and this could eventually lead to tigers getting used to human presence and eventually leading to increasing conflicts (or organised poaching). Significantly, the Corbett Reserve has a heavy density of natural prey base for the predator, so this bait trap is an artificial trap.

Some resorts also offer night safaris that are otherwise banned. Reportedly, there isn't much that forest officials can do because of the kind of money that is involved. In 2008, the park director, deputy director, warden and the deputy forest officer of Kalagarh, inside the reserve, were transferred for allegedly opposing the commercial exploitation of the area.

"Since tigers can't move freely to the adjoining forests in Sitabani and Ramnagar division, the closure of corridors would confine the tigers to small spaces leading to increasing infighting and decreasing numbers," says SP Yadav, Deputy Inspector General, National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Experts have also raised doubts about the security of tigers from poachers owing to this huge expansion of tourism around the vicinity of the park. Hence, while the private real estate mafia and resort owners benefit from tourism activity, the survival of tigers in "India's best tiger habitat" is at stake. "There is an urgent need for concerted efforts to save and preserve the tiger by all stakeholders, including the state government, MoT and ministry of environment and forests," says Banerjee.

The uncanny question is, will the nation react after it's too late? Will the majestic predator at Corbett meet the same fate as in condemned Sariska and Panna?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2010

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