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.”

These smart, well-connected conservationists argued that tourists are the eyes and ears of the forest and they prevent poaching. Others pointed at the impact its implications on livelihood of lakhs of people living around these reserves. Earlier, the office of the Union environment minister and other top ministry officials were inundated with letters, calls and messages from the pro-tourism lobby — conservationists, politicians, NGOs, resort owners and other stakeholders — to reconsider their decision. All kinds of pressure tactics have been employed by this lobby to force the government to retreat. 

Reportedly, Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh had written a letter to Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan explaining the adverse impact the ban will have on the livelihood of the locals and its possible fall outs. It was after Singh’s letter that the fledgling ministry reportedly decided to do a U-turn on the tourism guidelines that it had issued earlier. Under pressure from these powerful stakeholders, the ministry succumbed and requested the court to let it “review the guidelines and conduct more consultations with all stakeholders, including state governments and representatives of local and indigenous communities, besides reviewing the process adopted by states in notifying buffer areas of tiger reserves.” 

Many politicians too seem to have made similar requests. A Parliamentary Standing Committee member on tourism told Hardnews that the committee raised the issue with Union Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai and has asked him to intervene. Significantly, this MP in the Standing Committee has commercial interests in these tourism projects; during the on-going Parliament session, some of the stakeholders camping in his office were making frantic calls to their political bosses. Barring his self interest, this MP has no love for animals or conservation, inform his friends. “Now they are saying that people cannot draw water from a certain stretch of Chambal River because some ghariyal conservation programme is going on there. Now they should start throwing people into the river so that ghariyals can get healthier. People should always get precedence over these stupid wild animals, but I don’t know what is wrong with the ministry. We have the first right to this planet,” he told Hardnews, with a wicked smile.

Despite these hectic parleys, on August 29, the apex court extended the ban for a month asking the government to present amended guidelines to protect tigers after consultations with all stakeholders. The court also hinted at the possibility of regulated tourism across tiger reserves bringing much relief to the commercial tourism lobby. 

 Presence of tourists in no way ensures that there won’t be any poaching as poachers usually operate at night.  Tourists have access to only 20 percent of the reserve’s area and poachers operate throughout the park. Has there been any instance when tourists have alerted forest departments about a poacher or a poached animal?

The genesis of this entire legal tangle was a PIL filed by eco-activist Ajay Dubey in Madhya Pradesh High Court in September 2010 wherein he demanded notifying of core and buffer areas, ban on tourism activity within the core area in accordance with Wildlife Protection Act, and implementation of the tiger conservation plan specified by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA) to be employed in Madhya Pradesh. In January 2011, the MP High Court rejected the demand of the ban on core areas while it is still mulling over the other two demands. A gritty Dubey then decided to take the matter to the Supreme Court and filed a special leave petition six months later. A pro-active court on July 24 ordered an interim ban on tourism in core areas.

With more than 50 lakh people visiting various tiger reserves and other forests in the country, the anthropogenic pressure on these pristine landscapes have been immense, especially in the light of the fact that tigers have been poached in several reserves, and the nation’s forest cover has been drastically declining. Over the years, these numbers have witnessed a steep increase and numerous commercial resorts have mushroomed in the periphery of tiger reserves leading to brazen “exploitation, degradation, disturbance and misuse of fragile ecosystems” — as the government guidelines point out.

Worried with the quantum of commercial activities around these critical tiger habitats, the environment ministry, then under Jairam Ramesh, stumbled upon the idea of creating guidelines for such tourism related activities. The first draft guidelines were issued in June 2011; they were not finalised until the Supreme Court intervened. Soon after, guidelines were presented to the court on July 9. The guidelines read: “It (tourism) has also led to misuse of the term eco-tourism, often to the detriment of the ecosystem, and towards further alienation of local people and communities.” Also, the ministry didn’t plead to ban tourism completely, but requested it to be phased out from core areas within the next five years: “Within five years, permanent facilities located inside core-critical tiger habitats/critical wildlife habitats, which are being used for wildlife tourism, should be phased out.”

The guidelines recommended that there is a need to adhere to the amended provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act in terms of core/critical tiger habitat or critical wildlife habitat which have defined the need to provide inviolate core and buffer areas in tiger reserves. This became the point of contention for the tourism lobby that was worried with its commercial fall-outs. They then raised the issue of how tourists help in curbing poaching and how banning tourism from core areas will affect the livelihood options of several locals.

Wildlife experts refute these baseless allegations and point at the total wipe-out of tigers in Sariska and Panna due to organised poaching. The entire tiger population was wiped out in these reserves despite thousands of tourists visiting these tiger reserves. Experts have repeatedly pointed out that presence of tourists in no way ensures that that there won’t be any poaching activities as poachers usually operate at night when tourists are not around. Also, tourists have access to only 20 per cent of the reserve’s area and poachers operate throughout the park. “Has there been any instance when tourists have alerted forest departments or anyone else about a poacher or a poached animal? That is why, this whole logic stands no ground,” says a former Wildlife Crime Control Bureau official.

Also, busting the myth of tourism providing substantial livelihood options to locals, the Equations report reads: “It is true that tourism development generates employment opportunities for the local communities. However, the owners of these establishments, whether lodge owners or jeep owners, are usually not from the region... …The income thus generated from tourism is taken away from the region and into the bigger cities. There is also the issue of self-determination here. People who used to own land, due to poverty, have been forced to sell out to the companies and become employees as guides and drivers, if lucky; (they) usually end up working as security guards, gardeners, waiters at the restaurants etc. Therefore, the mere generation of employment, though an often-repeated argument, is highly overestimated as it does not counter the disempowerment and lack of dignified life that the adivasis experience.”

‘Kipling’s Camp owned by Belinda Wright was set up in 1982, one of the first on the periphery of Kanha Tiger Reserve. Valmik Thapar’s nephew reportedly owns ‘Sher Bagh’ in Ranthambore. Hashim Tyabji ran a high-end luxury lodge at pench Tiger Reserve, which has now been leased out to Taj Safaris Pvt Ltd’

Certain civil society groups have also raised the issue of how the interim order has created a situation of serious irregularities. They are of the opinion that the states, in their rush to declare buffer areas after the Supreme Court order, are violating the provisions of Wildlife Protection Act and the Forests Right’s Act. They believe that the court’s deadline of declaring buffer zones in three weeks would infringe upon the rights of people living in these areas. “We urge the petitioners in the stated case, the Amicus Curie, and the Supreme Court, to take cognizance of these serious violations, and create a situation in which tiger reserves, including their cores and buffers can be managed in ways that integrate wildlife conservation and livelihood security, and are democratic. Any rushed process that does not follow the due process, will only backfire on the tiger,” reads a statement by ecologist Ashish Kothari of Kalpvriksha.

However, a ministry official says that most of the guidelines on eco-tourism make several references to local participation in eco-tourism. “There would be no infringement of people’s rights and we have only suggested that the buffer should be free of mining, industries, and unsustainable land use. We have to respect people’s rights because without the support of the locals, tigers can’t be saved,” he says.

The apex court’s intervention has been a blessing in disguise for the NTCA as it helped in letting states notify their buffer zones. This issue has been pending with the states for more than six years and before the order some states had opposed the move. “NTCA should be pleased with the fact that soon after the SC interim ban, the tally of states that had notified their buffer areas has risen from 26 to 37. SC managed to do what environment ministry couldn’t do in years,” says a tiger expert. He adds that the SC’s intention is not to ban tourism, but to make these states act with more responsibility in protecting this endangered species. SC was miffed with the fact that despite its directive certain states didn’t notify their buffer areas. So, just like a schoolteacher who punishes children for not doing their homework, the SC decided to scare them by putting an interim ban on tourism,” he says.

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