A TWIST IN TOURISM’S TALE

With a new set of guidelines, MoEF seeks to involve locals in ecotourism, and rein in rampant real estate expansion that threatens tiger habitats
Akash Bisht Kanha 

It’s as early as 6am and the Khatia Gate at the Kanha National Park is bustling with activity. Hundreds of tourists armed with state-of-the-art cameras and binoculars eagerly wait for the gates to open. This gate would lead them to a natural paradise ruled by one of the greatest predators to ever walk this earth — the tiger. To catch a glimpse of their favourite animal, people have descended to this tiger haven from across the world. 

Soon the gates are lifted and visitors seat themselves comfortably on private Gypsies that snake their way down the kuccha road. The morning sun has lit up the jungle, and the warm light has forced the animals out of their hideouts. Jackal, deer, bison, wild boar and birds flock the open grassland to soak up the sun after days of pouring rain. 

Circling through the forests and peeping through their binoculars, the visitors are yet to hear about any tiger sightings. They begin to feel restless. “City-bred tourists haven’t come to Kanha to watch these beautiful birds, wild animals and the pristine forests. They only want to see the tiger. If we fail to locate a tiger, some of them even hurl abuses at us. But Kanha isn’t about tigers alone, it’s also famous for its swamp deer or Barasingha, but the tourists don’t seem interested,” says a tourist guide. 

The guide then asks the tourists to pay Rs 200 for a tiger show — that is the only way left to see the great cat. There was great confusion about the show and everyone waited patiently for the secret to unravel. A few kilometres inside the forest, the tourists are asked to climb on an elephant with the help of portable makeshift stairs made of steel. Many forest department personnel were involved in the exercise, and some even took pictures of the smiling tourists atop the elephants. 

The tourists are taken to a spot and the mahout points to a bush where a large tiger rested. His marvellous coat reflected the sunlight while he lay there motionless, even as elephant after elephant packed with tourists kept paying him a visit, coming as close as 10 feet for a close-up view. “Had the tiger moved or roared, people would have fallen from this wobbly ride and there would have been some accident,” said a tourist from Maharashtra. The reason why the tiger did not move away was revealed when another tourist pointed at the number of elephants that surrounded the beast. More than five elephants with forest staff as mahouts were grazing around the tiger and that deterred the tiger from escaping this weird show. 

As a guide informs Hardnews, the forest department ensures that those who pay for the tiger show get the worth of every penny. “I know it’s not good for the animal, but people come here to see the tiger and if they don’t see one, the chances of their coming back are bleak. So, we have to resort to such measures,” says a forest department official. 

This is just one instance of how growing tourism in and around tiger reserves is threatening the fragile ecosystem these tigers inhabit, among a wide variety of other flora and fauna. Several reports in the past have indicted tourism as one of the fastest growing human activities to impact on the tiger habitat across the country. Hotels and resorts are blocking crucial corridors that connect one source population of tigers to the others, facilitating movement across patches of forest. A Ministry of Tourism report (2010) reveals how more than 102 resorts near the Corbett National Park threaten the very survival of tigers as well as other animals and birds. Most of these resorts brazenly flout all environmental rules, and pose a deadly threat to all life forms. 

Wildlife experts in Madhya Pradesh (MP) recite the same story of mindless infrastructure coming up near Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. Jyotirmay Jena of World Wildlife Fund-India says, “These resorts are blocking crucial corridors and creating hindrances for animal dispersal, confining the wild animals in island-like habitats that remain isolated from other populations. If these resorts keep coming up at this rate, then all our efforts to save the corridors would go waste.” 

Recently, the Supreme Court served a notice to National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the MP government on why tourism shouldn’t be banned in core areas and critical tiger habitats. This was the result of a special leave petition filed by Advocate Gaurav Agrawal on behalf of Ajay Dubey. Dubey works with Prayatna, a Bhopal-based NGO, and had filed the petition against an interim order of Jabalpur High Court that rejected his request for banning commercial tourism in core and critical areas of tiger reserves. “The matter issub judiceand I would not like to comment on it. However, the need to develop a sensible, eco-friendly model of tourism is what we are now stressing,” says Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, NTCA. 

Gopal informs that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has also posted some guidelines on tourism in and around protected areas (PAs) on its website, and invited suggestions for the same. In his foreword to the draft, the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, mentions that it is for the first time any detailed guidelines have been issued, and that too after much debate and consultation with wildlife experts and tourism practitioners. He writes, “Ecotourism is tourism that is compatible with these fragile landscapes, while providing enhanced livelihoods to local communities… These guidelines have long been overdue, and are part of the key recommendations of the Tiger Task Force Report (2005), as well as the 2006 amendment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.”

 

A detailed set of framework guidelines on the selection, planning, development, implementation and monitoring of ecotourism has been put forth by the ministry. Given the diverse Indian wildlife landscape, these guidelines include state-specific ecotourism strategies and plans developed by concerned authorities and the respective state governments. Though the process is at a nascent stage, wildlife experts believe that once these guidelines are implemented in their true spirit, it would change the face of tourism in these forests.

 

A major componentof the guidelines concerns the participation of local communities, excluded till now from the commercial growth around the reserves. “These resorts do not employ many locals; usually the workforce comes from cities, and with formal training in hospitality,” says Jyotirmay, referring to the resorts near Kanha. 

The guidelines mention that the first benefit from ecotourism should go to the local population, and that there is a need to forge sustainable partnerships among all stakeholders. It suggests provision of soft loans to the locals for promoting ecotourism. “These measures would reduce their dependence on forests and potentially strengthen wildlife protection and conservation, apart from providing livelihoods and greater incomes to the locals. If they are made stakeholders, then they would certainly take care of their surroundings, and that would eventually benefit the tiger conservation programme,” says Jagdish Kishwan, Additional Director General (Wildlife), MoEF. 

This could change the way tourism has been operating in these reserves. “Of great significance are guidelines like the ones dealing with gate receipts from protected areas (PAs), wherein the revenue should go to the PA management and not the state exchequer, besides regarding preparation and approval of ecotourism projects by state governments, which would also levy a local conservation cess, as a percentage of turnover, from privately run tourist facilities within 5kms of the PA’s boundary,” says Kishwan. The Tiger Task Force had recommended in 2005 that hotels within 5kms from the boundary of a reserve must contribute 30 per cent of their turnover to the reserve. “These guidelines are still on MoEF’s website and we are seeking more feedback to go ahead with something concrete,” says Gopal. 

With huge amounts of money at stake, the tourism lobby holds great sway over the decisions of state governments. This was proved when the tourism lobby of Ranthambhore National Park created hurdles in the relocation of tigers from Ranthambhore to Sariska. “They are creating nuisance by spreading rumours about the tigers and how relocation will bring down the numbers in Ranthambhore,” a senior Rajasthan forest department official had earlier told Hardnews

With greater spending power, wider sections of the middle classes have started to experiment with tourism. However, if this feeds into the mindless real estate expansion around tiger reserves, the habitat would no longer be able to sustain the majestic cat. “We would have lots of resorts and hotels in these areas, but not animals,” warns Kishwan.    

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2011