Don’t Ban Wildlife Tourism, Customise It

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The case against wildlife tourism in core forests is up for hearing soon. But the interests of industry and conservation are not irreconcilable, says Jay Mazoomdaar

Spectator interest Tourists on a tiger safari in Ranthambore
Spectator interest Tourists on a tiger safari in Ranthambore, Photo: Aditya Singh

MORE THAN 50 lakh tourists visit India’s forests every year. They and lakhs of others who make a living out of those visits started worrying when a 2006 amendment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 necessitated that India’s core critical tiger habitats be left ‘inviolate’.

The government strengthened its scheme for voluntary relocation of villages and issued directives to phase out tourism from core forests. While the relocation drive is achieving mixed results, nothing really has changed on the tourism front. Therefore, conservation activists moved court.

The debate outside the courtroom is raging. Pro-tribal groups blasted the hypocrisy of shunting poor villagers out and entertaining rich tourists in the same place. The tourism lobby hit back at the absurdity of comparing the impact of safari tourists, who do not even set foot in the forest, to that of villagers who survive on forest water, land, firewood and even bush meat, and are potential allies of poachers.

Moreover, a whole set of restrictions in and around reserves allows few livelihood options and tourism is the mainstay of such pocket economies. But while mushrooming resorts block wildlife corridors, pump out groundwater and dump garbage indiscriminately, few locals benefit from such enterprises owned by outsiders.

Like any industry, tourism survives on growth. Every tourism enterprise shows off its client base and many destinations are touted for the number of tourists they attract. The equation that determines the carrying capacity of a reserve is a joke among many who know basic ecology and a little maths. But surely, no patch of wilderness can host an unlimited number of tourists without damaging itself.

Anyway, if an operator promotes a pristine forest for what it is and offers the concessions that mass tourism demands, the destination will quickly lose its USP. So the growth imperative of mass tourism demands that thousands of safari tourists be packed, with the popular promise of a tiger, in hundreds of walled resorts choking our forests.

Growth of mass tourism demands that safaris be packed with the promise of a tiger

One solution offered is to make wildlife tourism exorbitant. But it is undemocratic and anyway not acceptable to many low-end operators who survive on volumes. The other demand, now before the court, is for pushing tourism away from core forests. But mass tourism is overwhelmingly tiger-centric and confinement to lesser forest areas will further add to the uncertainty of ‘sighting’. It does not make any business sense to the tourism lobby.

What we need to accept is that there are two sets of wildlife tourists. They are not distinguished by spending power but by their expectations. The majority wants to see tigers outside zoos while having a good time. A small minority considers tiger sighting a bonus — often a big bonus — but demand, above all, a true jungle experience. They will sacrifice most creature comforts for that experience. These tourists deserve access to even the best of forests where they will be just fine with a hard bed, a basic toilet, plain meals and lights out after early dinner.

The rest should only be allowed on limited safaris to try their tiger luck. They can, of course, enjoy their swimming pools and DJs at regular resorts a certain distance, say 5 km, away from core forests. As for existing resorts, the properties should be made to create space for animal movement, follow strict garbage disposal norms and limit usage of resources. It should be mandatory for all tourism businesses to hire a certain percentage of locals at equitable salaries.

But mere court directives or new laws will not help. Corrupt forest (and local) officials and greedy players in the industry are equally to blame for the present mess. If the government is serious about conservation and if wildlife tourism really seeks a long-term future, both must come clean.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist. 
jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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