The tiger tourism debate excludes the traditionally excluded but the new MoEF panel must protect conservation’s biggest stakeholders
By Jay Mazoomdaar
What is the cost of saving the tiger? What is the benefit? Who bears the cost? And who is the beneficiary?
While a fresh panel of experts appointed this week by the Ministry of Environment and Forests has just 10 days to redraft the eco-tourism guidelines to safeguard the tiger so that the Supreme Court may lift the interim ban on tourists by the time reserves become accessible after the monsoon, these questions demand answers.
After its last amendment in 2006, the Wildlife Protection Act required the government to declare inviolate core and dual-use buffer areas in each tiger reserve. Most reserves anyway had a demarcated core and buffer. But, to secure maximum possible land from the Forest Rights Act that would soon empower forest villagers, the green ministry notified the existing core and buffer in most reserves as Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH), the new core.
Since most of India’s reserves are pocket forests, it naturally became difficult to find additional areas to be declared as new buffers. At the same time, forest villages were being shifted out of CTHs to make the new cores inviolate while tourism in such areas remained unaffected. Under these circumstances, petitioners moved court, seeking speedy notification of buffers and a ban on tourism in inviolate CTHs.
This led to the interim ban on tourism. A few buffer areas were notified hurriedly, some far away from cores with little or no conservation value. The Centre’s first set of tourism guidelines failed to address the danger of mushrooming resorts around core areas that block wildlife movement, plunder natural resources, cause pollution and further alienate the local poor. Instead, the focus remained on the much less damaging and easily manageable jeep and elephant safaris inside core forests.
The conservationists who strongly backed the green ministry’s sweeping notifications marking expansive CTHs to keep local communities out are now lambasting the demarcations as arbitrary. It is a comic admission of double-standards triggered by their high stake in tourism which now faces the threat of a shutdown in core areas.
The wildlife tourism lobby is now claiming credit for the high number of tigers in tourism zones. The claim belies the fact that tourism originally gravitated to high tiger presence areas and, therefore, it is natural that most tourism zones today have a relative abundance of tigers. If tourism alone could save tigers, the wipeout in Sariska and Panna would have never happened.
Some hoteliers are even asserting that their choice of business is an unrewarding social duty, a sacrifice made for conservation. While some of them are bona fide conservationists, they underplay the fact that their green initiatives ultimately serve as business USPs for discerning clients who are often willing to shell out serious money.
Not surprisingly this debate excludes the traditionally excluded. Our tiger reserves never belonged to the tiger alone. Otherwise, the government would not have to relocate villages. There is hardly any “wild” place as we like to imagine it on earth. Even the so-called impregnable forests of central India were the home of the Gond tribals. In every forest, wildlife survived, flourished or declined as a factor of human socio-economic equations.
A number of present tiger forests were once hunting reserves. Many more were nurtured by communities. Even the wildest of places were not unfamiliar to the human footprint before researchers decided to venture there. The sustainability of our shrinking wilderness today is challenged by the growing population and modern aspirations of the traditional forest dwellers. But it is undermined equally, if not more, by our destructive need for growth.
Inviolate zones help tiger conservation. The human cost of it is to sacrifice the resources in such areas. This means the economy cannot monetise the land, the timber or the minerals underground. For the local communities at the very margin of that economy, this leads to displacement, loss of livelihood and culture. While the damage to the national exchequer is shared by a billion-plus Indians, the locals, in their suffering, are alone. The state may still harness the resources every now and then in national interest but the alienation of the locals remains non-negotiable.
The ecological — and therefore economic in the long term — benefits of conservation, again, are shared by every Indian. The direct financial benefits, however, are few unless locals are allowed to sustainably harvest forest produce. In such a scenario, tourism is the most effective legitimate means of monetising the tiger. But there is no quantification yet of how much money tiger tourism generates and what percentage of it goes to local communities. The industry has neither volunteered nor encouraged such studies.
Lack of education, skill or hygiene is no excuse for denying the people who pay the maximum price for conservation the bulk of the profit tourism generates. It is their land where the tiger flourishes and keeps the industry in business. Since doles never help in the long run, such communities have to be brought to the centre of eco-tourism through training in soft skills and co-operative financing.
The tourism guidelines cannot safeguard the tiger without taking care of the interests of conservation-affected communities. Tourists are minor stakeholders here. They, to quote a post-ban social media campaign, do not kill tigers. But can they save the big cat if forest villagers turn hostile? Fortunately, they won’t have to if tourism incentivises communities to look after the tiger.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.