How did your interest in hunting, turn into a passion for wildlife protection when you were in East Africa?
During my 15 years in Kenya, I got the opportunity to visit the game parks in the country and understand how wildlife was protected as well as their principles of conservation that involved the local community. It is here that my interest in wildlife hunting turned into a passion for wildlife protection and nature conservation. Eventually, I became an active member of the East African Wildlife Society. I was highly impressed by the way wildlife tourism had proliferated responsibly and gained popularity in Africa, something that had not taken off in India then. I dreamt of similar ventures in India, where tourists could enjoy being in the wild, and at the same time relax in the luxury of an eco-friendly resort.
What can India learn from Africa about wildlife protection and tourism?
There is a lot we can learn. First and foremost, wildlife tourism must be linked to the livelihoods of the communities sharing the habitat with the wildlife. The benefits of tourism must be shared among the people who have been living close to our tiger reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. India occupies just about 2% of the world’s land area but has over 8% of the world’s biodiversity. Almost all of the world’s biomes are represented in our country, the Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats are among the world’s ‘biodiversity hotspots’. But despite all these world-class plus points and having the largest surviving population of tigers in the world, India still lags behind in portraying itself as one of the top wildlife destinations in the world. It is here that we must look at what African countries such as Kenya and South Africa have done to promote wildlife tourism.
Changes have to be done right from the policy level. In India, protection of wildlife and the potential of wildlife tourism to be an effective tool to achieve conservation were never really planned to go hand-in-hand. The government must work with the stakeholders of tourism right from the planning stage. Though the situation is changing now, it did not happen in the last two decades. This lack of dialogue and coordination, even within the government departments such as tourism and wildlife, has resulted in unplanned mushrooming of so-called ‘wildlife resorts’ all around some of the finest protected areas in India. Such a scenario was avoided in Africa as their planning was right. I think countries such as Kenya have demonstrated perfectly well how wildlife tourism should be successfully run and how it can be a win-win situation for both, the local community as well as the wildlife.
Is it true that your Infinity Resort was one of the first to block the Corbett elephant corridor? What are the proposed solutions for carving out new elephant corridors in these zones and how feasible are they?
Infinity Resorts was set up in 1990 in the village of Dhikuli on the outskirts of Corbett Tiger Reserve. The land on which it is situated was a private land owned by villagers and it was never a part of any of the known elephant corridors. This fact has been confirmed by renowned scientists, wildlife experts and leading organisations of India, and we have all the correspondence to back this statement. Infinity Resorts was certainly the first resort to come up in Corbett, but we have never blocked any wildlife corridors ever and never will. In fact, in 1994 I started The Corbett Foundation and started working for the conservation of wildlife and betterment of the local community with a mission to reduce man-animal conflict in the area. The Corbett Foundation and WWF-India have been jointly implementing one of the oldest and most successful tiger conservation programmes, wherein we provide interim compensation to villagers whose livestock has been depredated by tigers or leopards in the buffer zone of Corbett Tiger Reserve. This has prevented the deaths of big cats due to the retaliatory killing measures adopted by the villagers in the past.
As far as elephant corridors in Corbett area are concerned, several scientists and conservationists have already identified three major elephant corridors connecting Corbett Tiger Reserve to the Ramnagar Forest Division. These are – Ringora to Bijrani, Sunderkhal to Dhangari and Mohan to Kumaria. It is up to the government authorities to ensure that these are protected. To carve out new elephant corridors may not be possible due to the pressures of development. However, utmost protection must be given to already identified elephant corridors. To achieve this, there must be proper coordination between the forest, tourism and industry ministries and any developmental activity should be avoided in these areas.
Could you explain the presence of the elephant kept in chains at Corbett?
Elephants have been domesticated and kept in chains for over thousands of years in the Eastern world. For an animal of this size and strength, it is imperative that chains be used to keep them from straying, thereby endangering life and property. The elephant at Infinity Resorts is being looked after well by a dedicated staff.
There have been reports of carbofuran being used by poachers to kill tigers in the Corbett region. What is the Corbett Foundation doing to regulate the availability of carbofuran or furadan in towns near the Corbett Tiger Reserve?
We are equally concerned about the illegal use of carbofuran, which is one of the most toxic pesticides used in India. Though its ill-effects are known on human health, there is no government regulation restricting its sale or use. In such a situation, there is little that anyone can do. However, we do engage in spreading awareness about its hazards and talk to the local villagers in using a safer alternative to it or shift to organic insecticides or pest-controlling options. I think the real cause of worry is the access of poachers to tiger habitats. If this is prevented by exercising stricter measures such as effective patrolling, the cases of tiger deaths due to poisoning would be under control. India needs a strong political will to deal with the incidents of poaching. Also, immediate attention must be given to tiger habitats outside the purview of the Protected Area network. These areas need better 24×7 surveillance and a highly motivated team to deal with poaching and timber mafias.
Regarding the Supreme Court directive on 24 July, 2012 to curb all tourist activity in tiger zones, the Corbett Foundation blog says that no tourist movement in the park will only help the Naxalites.Do you believe that wildlife tourism is a plausible means to put an end to the naxal movement?
The Supreme Court directed the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to frame guidelines to regulate tourism in the Protected Areas, especially in tiger reserves. The NTCA guidelines clearly state that not more than 20% of the core zone of a tiger reserve may be used for tourism activities. I whole-heartedly support this decision as I strongly believe that wildlife tourism must be operated in a responsible and eco-friendly manner. The primary purpose of wildlife tourism should be the protection of tigers and other wildlife, and in no way should it affect their existence in our forests.
It must be noted here that wildlife tourism does generate a lot of revenue for the government and at the same time supports the livelihood of the community living in and around the forest areas. While naxalism is a broader issue of national concern, my comment quoted above was in the context of the possibility of closing down tourism activities from all tiger reserves. If this were to happen, it would have spelt doom as thousands of locals would have lost their only means of livelihood that is dependent on wildlife tourism. We simply cannot afford such drastic measures.
What are some of the ways in which the Corbett Foundation helps support the local population and gram pradhans in the area? And what have been some of the challenges in this regard?
We have not only supported the local villages in Corbett but also in the tiger reserves of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Kaziranga, as well as around the Greater Rann of Kutch.
In the Corbett landscape, the Foundation has been successfully implementing the Interim Relief Scheme since 1995. Through its Rural Medical Outreach Programme, our mobile medical units have been offering primary healthcare facilities in over 100 villages in Corbett. We’ve worked for the preservation of the endangered Mahseer fish in the River Kosi. The Mahseer Mitra initiative provides regular income to the local youth and the implementation of the solar-powered fencing around Ringora village has mitigated man-animal conflict.
The Kutch Ecological Research Centre (KERC), a division of The Corbett Foundation, was started in 1999 with the aim to help the local community and to study the fragile and semi-arid ecosystem of Kutch threatened by overgrazing and encroachment. KERC has been striving for the sustainable community development in over 80 villages through the Rural Medical Outreach Programme, Cattle Development Programme, Watershed Management and Grasslands Development Programme. KERC has played an important role in protecting the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard in Kutch.
In Kanha and Bandhavgarh, the Foundation initiated the process of providing solar-powered lanterns to villages at the outskirts of these tiger reserves. A total of 10 villages have benefitted under this scheme. This initiative has reduced the dependence of the villagers on forests for fuel wood for lighting.
In 2011, the Foundation established a Medical and Training Centre in Kanha to provide vocational training and skills to the local tribal youth. The Centre is an environment-friendly complex as 100% of its energy requirements are met with through a 10 kilowatt solar power plant. In 2013, the Foundation established a tribal museum in the village of Baherakhar in the buffer zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve. This is perfect model for responsible tourism. The museum, which is built in a traditional Baiga hut design, has displays and exhibits explaining the tribal culture around Kanha and is managed sustainably by a self help group of Baiga tribes facilitated by the Corbett Foundation.
While the above initiatives are carried out, it is not easy to work in such remote areas. There are several challenges but we are committed to work our way through these hurdles.