Will banning 'tiger tourism' save the big cats from extinction?

Will banning 'tiger tourism' save the big cats from extinction?

The Supreme Court order banning tourism in core areas of tiger reserves has exposed the rift between profit-making lobby of tour operators, many of whom are hand-in-glove with a section of tiger activists and the conservation biologists who advocate the need of regulate the current model of eco-tourism.

With the court giving time to all parties to present their views before the bench by August 21, a debate has begun on whether tourists are responsible for disappearance of big cats from Indian forests.

“Where is the evidence to prove that any park lost any tiger due to tourism? It’s the poachers who kill tigers. It is a travesty of justice that nobody was held responsible for allowing tigers to disappear from Sariska and Panna. But the tourism industry is blamed because it is a soft target,” says Govardhan Rathode, owner of Khem Vilas resort in Ranthambhore.

One of the key arguments from the tourism lobby is that the number of tigers went up in popular tourist spots like Ranthambhore, Corbett and Bandhavgarh. The last two rounds of census provide evidence in support of this argument. Even as the number of big cats remains more or less static at Ranthambhore, the count was up in Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Periyar and Nagarhole-Waynaad-Madhumalai forests.   

The last tiger census carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) under the Union environment and forest ministry, India had an estimated presence of 1,706 big cats (this is actually a mean value as the range is from a minimum of 1,571 to a maximum of 1,875).
It is a jump from the 2008 estimation of 1411 tigers, excluding the animals in Sunderban (70 tigers as per 2011 count). This means the country is home to over half the world’s tiger population spread over 17 states.

The Supreme Court judges are clearly not convinced with official statistics. “Whatever may be the statistics or data by different agencies, the fact of the matter is tigers are on the verge of extinction,” the bench has stated.  

The problem, explains researcher M D Madhusudan from Nature Conservation Society at Mysore, was not with tourism but a certain elitist model of tourism that generated revenue for the private sector but did very little that the profits percolated down to the local community. The tour operators and resort owners vehemently deny this argument.
“It will not only lead to loss of livelihood for locals but also dry up the revenue source for the parks. It’s not a practical idea,” says Amit Sankhla, owner of jungle lodges in Kanha and Bandabhgarh. “The tour operators’ claim that they contribute to the local economy and generate employment is exaggerated,” says Madhusudan. “The employment the locals receive are for menial jobs. In Ranthambhore there are about 200 guides, most of whom go to the forests thrice a day. So how many fresh locals get the job of a safari guide?” asks P K Sen, former field director of Palamu tiger reserve in Jharkhand.

Local conservation fee

This is precisely the reason that the Union environment ministry has proposed to levy a ‘local conservation fee’ of a minimum 10 per cent of turnover, on all tourist facilities within 5 km of the boundary of a Protected Area as well as wildlife corridors and sensitive habitats in its proposed eco-tourism guideline, which will be examined by the apex court.
The levy will not apply to small home-stay facilities of local residents, developed under approved ecotourism plan.

In recent years, mushrooming of tourist facilities around protected areas has led to the exploitation, degradation, disturbance and misuse of fragile ecosystems. It has also led to misuse of the term ‘ecotourism’, often to the detriment of the ecosystem, and towards further alienation of local people and communities, the ministry says. In fact the 2005 tiger task force had proposed a 30 per cent conservation levy but on returns recommended a 100 per cent tax exemption for those resorts and hotel owners.

Notification of buffer zone remains another area of contention. While all the states have notified the core (inviolate) areas, seven states—Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand—have not done so due to problems in land acquisition, compensation to villagers, besides local political issues.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (as amended in 2006) defines core/critical wildlife habitats as such areas that need to be kept inviolate for tiger conservation without affecting the rights of scheduled tribes or forest dwellers. The Act also defines the buffer area consisting of the area peripheral to Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) or Core Area where a lesser degree of protection is required to ensure the integrity of the CTH...and which aim at promoting co-existence between wildlife and human activity with due recognition of the livelihood, developmental, social and cultural rights of the local people.

Rathode says Ranthambhore does not have a buffer zone worthy of tourism. In Bandipur, the core and buffer areas have been joined to create a critical tiger habitat. “Tourism in buffer zone is not a realistic idea. For instance in Bandhavgarh, there is hardly any prey base in the buffer zone, so tigers will not come,” said Belinda Wright, executive director of Wildlife Protection Society of India.

“While it is important to regulate tourists, it will be a national loss if the SC order takes away common man’s chance to see the tiger,” says Madhusudan. In Bandipur, forest department used to ferry the common people in protected buses (Rs 500 per person) to forests whereas costly safari costs thousands of rupees. “Equitable opportunity should be provided to common man to see the majestic animal in jungles,” says Madhusudan.

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