A Tiger a Day, Keeps the Tourist Lobby Healthy, Wealthy and Gay

Tiger tourism in core forests . So why are eminent tiger conservationists riding the lucrative bandwagon of commercial tourist lobbies?

Akash Bisht Delhi 

“A Baiga tribal, who has never travelled out of the Kanha National Park before, will be there to share his story,” read a SMS invite to a press conference in Delhi some time back. At the press meet, a Baiga tribal dressed in his traditional costume sat next to a popular wildlife conservationist and some tour operators. The conference was aimed to pressurise the central government and put forward the demand to allow tourism in core areas of tiger reserves in India. The presence of commercial tour operators in such a meet seemed logical, but the attendance of a tribal and a wildlife activist baffled many. As the conference progressed, the organisers propagated tourism in core areas and how the ban would have an adverse impact on the livelihood of tribals. Journalists were shocked with the change of heart of these organisers, especially the wildlife activist, who had in the past publicly advocated the need to evict tribals from the forests to make inviolate space for the tigers. 

Soon after the floor was open for questions, journalists quizzed Soansai Baiga, the tribal, about his story. He informed that he was evicted from the Kanha National Park in 1973 and now works as a daily wage labourer for the forest department on a paltry sum of Rs 100 a day. He also mentioned how they perform tribal dance in their traditional attire to entertain guests at various high-end resorts. Attacked for exploiting tribals for their greed, the tour operators said that by employing tribals they are helping them in preserving their culture. When asked if the organisers would support the cause of tribals if they decide to ask for compensation vis-a-vis their forcible eviction under the Forests Rights Act (FRA), the answer was a categorical no. “The national parks should be made inviolate of people. The 24-hour habitation of people affects the behaviour of wildlife. Tourists come only for 6-7 hours and do not harm the forest or wildlife,” said the conservationist.

Similarly, on August 29, 2012, when the Supreme Court was to deliver its verdict on the interim ban on tourism in critical tiger habitats, an opinion piece written by well known conservationist Valmik Thapar appeared in an English daily. He argued that the ban will have a negative impact on wildlife tourism and the livelihoods of the local communities. Thapar’s paradigm shift, from being a proponent of people’s eviction from forests, to a messiah of local communities, was puzzling.

Clearly, conservationists, who have benefited massively from the lucrative business of tourism, were now using the ‘tribal card’ to protect and perpetuate their commercial interests. Since the day the court imposed an interim ban, both foreign and local media have been flooded with one-dimensional ‘opinions’ penned by individuals (and lobbies) with vested interests on the fallouts of any such move. Conservationists have been vocal about their displeasure in the local media and have also been successful in influencing foreign media that has paid considerable attention to the issue.

Ironically, these conservationists, who till date were dead against human and animal coexistence, have now suddenly discovered a soft corner for indigenous communities. “They are now raising issues like how the ban would impact the livelihoods of people living in and around tiger reserves. It is a complete reversal of their earlier stand wherein they had opposed any possibility of man-animal co-existence. This sudden change of heart is stunningly suspicious,” says an activist. 

People who owned land, due to poverty, have been forced to sell out to companies and become employees as guides and drivers; they end up working as security guards, gardeners, waiters. The logic of employement generation and livelihood, thus, is highly overestimated

A report by Equations, an NGO that studies the social, cultural, economic and environmental impact of tourism on local communities, suggests the possibility of a nexus between conservationists, state governments and tourism lobbies. Calling to Account - Image and Ethics in Corporate Accountability in Tourism, the report reveals how some ‘celebrity conservationists’ have entered the tourism foray: “…Kipling’s Camp owned by the internationally known British environmentalist Belinda Wright was set up in 1982, one of the first on the periphery of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. The famous tiger conservationist whose life work has been in Ranthambore, Valmik Thapar… (his) …nephew reportedly owns the Sher Bagh (resort) in the same tiger reserve. Hashim Tyabji along with three other individuals ran a high-end luxury lodge at Pench Tiger Reserve, which has now been leased out (to) Taj Safaris Pvt. Ltd. Dr Raghunandan Singh Chundavat owns the Sarai at Toria, a lodge at Panna Tiger Reserve… All the above mentioned conservationists have been able to significantly influence wildlife related policies and practices in the country and have served on a government instituted committee for conservation at some point of time in their careers, pointing to the possibility of a nexus between conservationists, the State and the tourism industry.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2012