Forests With a View
FORESTS WITH A VIEW
|Does tourism help or hinder the increase and protection of wildlife? asks Sudipta Bhattacharjee|
The view from the open tourist jeep was one that seasoned wildlife enthusiasts in India hope and pray for, but seldom find. A tigress emerged from the shadows of the undergrowth and walked along the trail, three young cubs gambolling in her wake.
The next day, she was spotted limping along the Tala range of the panoramic Bandhavgarh tiger reserve. Hours later, the 10-year-old tigress was dead. The autopsy confirmed liver rupture after a hit by a tourist vehicle.
The probability of sighting the big cat is so high in this Madhya Pradesh sanctuary that hordes of visitors are drawn to the core areas. Last summer, another tiger had fallen prey to a tourist vehicle there, setting a trend that is alarming conservationists. The hot season is popular because visibility of endangered fauna increases manifold, the heat prompting animals to gather in open spaces and at waterholes more frequently than during the rest of the year.
After the post mortem of the dead tigress, the field director, C.K. Patil, said, “We are of the view that a tourist vehicle hit her.” On the heels of this incident, the National Tiger Conservation Authority announced that it plans to phase out tourism in all 39 tiger reserves since crowding them (over 1,000 tourists enter each sanctuary daily) was having a negative impact on conservation efforts.
When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, there were 1,800 of the species. By 2002, the number had risen to 3,600. Today, the official census data claims that the population has dwindled to a little over 1,400, leading proponents of the total ban on tiger tourism to claim that without a ban the animal will be extinct in five years.
While experts debate whether tiger tourism should be banned, the need of the hour is to regulate entry into core areas. Revenue from tourism is channelled into conservation efforts. So putting an end to tourist inflow could, as in the case of Zimbabwe, expedite the extinction of wildlife, leaving poachers and corrupt staff to have a field day. This is evident because China’s greed for tiger parts — the single factor that has made poaching such a lucrative occupation — is unlikely to abate overnight.
It would be simplistic to suggest that blocking tourists will help wildlife thrive. With the publicity blitz on ‘responsible tourism’ adding to the accountability of forest officials, tigers are possibly ‘safer’ in sanctuaries, although poachers continue to thrive hand-in-glove with corrupt guards and villagers.
In Kaziranga National Park, which has just overtaken Corbett as the sanctuary with the highest density of tigers (32.64 per 100 square kilometres to Corbett’s 19.6) forest guards have been known to help poachers kill rhinos for their horns. Despite the high density, sighting the big cat at Kaziranga is rare and the chief attraction is the one-horned rhinoceros.
Those opposed to a ban on tiger tourism argue that the move will reduce the income of those living in fringe areas. Their livelihood is inextricably linked to forest activity, which makes them easy associates in the poaching network. Neither will the dwindling income of sanctuary authorities, once the tourist flow dries up and the mushrooming of resorts is arrested, prompt them to jump on to the conservation wagon with alacrity.
The minister of state for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, admits that “revenues from tourism can flow back directly into the management of each tiger reserve so that local communities can benefit”. It is encouraging that Ramesh has directed his ministry to limit the number of visits and make them more expensive, as well as to impose environmental clearance certificates for all projects in these zones.
Even Sasan Gir in Gujarat’s Junagadh district, the last-known habitat of the Asiatic lion, that has been tomtoming its success story (the latest census shows a rise in leonine pride from 52 to 411, 77 being less than a year old) has reported stray poaching incidents. The eight tourist trails in this magnificent sanctuary are criss-crossed by train tracks. Campaigns over the years have failed to have these relocated, just as the Maldhari families continue to reside in core areas, in spite of their cattle falling prey to lions and leopards.
It is shameful that tourist traffic poses a threat to Gir’s inhabitants, since the animals here, unlike in most other sanctuaries, exhibit a blind trust in humans and do not scamper into the undergrowth at the sight of the tourist jeeps. It is fairly common to findnilgai and sambars grazing alongside tourist trails even when a vehicle with raucous tourists rattles past. Wildlife lovers can actually venture within 100 yards of resting lions with only a stick for company. As long as they know where to draw the line.
At Ranthambore, another popular tiger reserve in Rajasthan, new resorts along the forest fringes have led to a surge in tourist traffic, besides the significant rise in settlements around the fort at its entrance. Sometimes, these villagers in the buffer zones choke tiger corridors and negate conservation efforts. Experts monitoring wildlife population dynamics and ecology warn that the tiger is a territorial species and may venture out of core areas in search of new pastures, posing a threat to settlers in encroached areas, thereby intensifying the man-animal conflict.
Once that happens, the impact on the broader ecosystem will worsen, with the fringe area tussle assuming supremacy over conservation concerns. Official data claims nearly 50,000 families live in critical tiger zones in the country, covering 34,000 sq km. Efforts to relocate them, often at immense cost, have not proved viable. Although the Maldharis at Sasan Gir need to be compensated for every head of cattle they lose to preying lions, they are quite content to continue living in the core forest areas.
Our wildlife, unfortunately, does not comprise a votebank in the world’s largest democracy, so its interests are trampled upon to appease the encroachers. We live in a system that is a slave to the numbers game and an inviolate habitat will only be seen as a breeding ground for escalation in the unending man-animal conflict.