Aug 04, 2012, 07:39 IST | Hemal Ashar

A recent court order banning tiger tourism in core areas of parks and sanctuaries has provoked a debate whether this would deter poachers or prove counter-productive

In a bid to boost tiger conservation in India the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement delivered recently banned tourism many of the country’s 41 tiger reserves. The court order was in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by an activist. Excerpts from the court order say: ‘core zones/areas in tiger reserves will not be allowed for tourism’.

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The Supreme Court had recently slapped a fine on six states, for failing to notify buffer and core zones in the tiger projects located in their respective states. The notification would help check encroachments inside the tiger reserve, track poachers and also keep an eye on tigers whose numbers have been declining over the past few decades.

Core issues: Dr Manilal Valliyate

Several tiger reserves in India have ‘core zones’. Some reserves also have ‘buffer zones’ which are ‘fringe areas’. These usually surround tiger reserves and can go up to a distance of 10 km. The Court has ordered that the ‘buffer’ and ‘core’ zones be demarcated clearly.

Call of the wild: Prakash Dubey (in white) at Kaziranga in Assam pic/Katie Dubey

There is a divide though about whether this order would be helpful in bringing tiger numbers up. Says Dr Manilal Valliyate, Director of Veterinary Affairs, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, “India has more than half of the world’s tigers and so the responsibility lies with us in ensuring this species does not go extinct.

Tiger trail: Bittu Sahgal (L) at a book release function earlier in the city

As per the 2011 tiger census report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the total tiger population in India was estimated at approximately 1,706. In the world, there are only thought to be around 3,000 tigers in the wild. The tiger population numbers speak for themselves and make clear that we are NOT doing enough, and not quickly enough, to save this species. The Supreme Court directive to stop tiger tourism in core areas of sanctuaries, parks is one effective way to stop poaching and prevent extinction of tigers. Anti-poaching measures across India need to be scaled up and implemented urgently to achieve zero poaching."

Feline strength: A tiger in profile. Pic/Prakash Dubey

Dr Valliyate says that the core should remain sacrosanct because, “A recent Wildlife Institute of India report said that most tigers are in the core areas.

These areas are the best habitats for the big cats to survive if human intervention can be minimized. In most of the tiger reserves, tourists are allowed inside the core tiger critical areas. Reports indicate tigers have been killed by tourist vehicles and that tourist lodges built in the core areas block the corridors used by tigers to enter one forest to the other.”

The director of Veterinary Affairs adds that, “There are better alternatives for promoting tourism without compromising conservation of endangered wild animals like tigers.

The towns and tourism agencies should promote eco-tourism without disturbing core areas of wildlife sanctuaries.” Though Valliyate says India should be in the forefront of the tiger fight, given the striped cat’s numbers here, he adds, striking a global note, “US President B Obama’s daughters are very supportive of saving the tigers worldwide."

Tourist Louts
Ditto it is for Prakash Dubey, member of the Wildlife Board Govt. of Maharashtra, who says that from June 15 to October 15, most parks remain closed, so officials have time to clearly demarcate core areas and buffer zones as the Supreme Court has ordered. The demarcation needs to be sharp and clear.

Dubey though thinks that there is a dividing line between poaching and tourism and it is seldom that the two doth meet. Says Dubey, “I have to scoff when the hotel lobby and vested interests tout the old argument that tourism helps in controlling poachers because with so many people around, poachers cannot kill animals without being spotted.

First of all, usually, poachers do not enter during daytime, they also do not enter or exit through conventional routes, and it is very naïve to think that poachers would enter through `entry gates'. So I do not buy this at all.”

Dubey puts his finger on tourism itself that needs to change. “First, we need to raise the entry fee to parks. I remember a few years ago, the entry to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary was Rs 2 or Rs 5 or something.

Can you imagine the quality of people going in there? Even now, entry in some parks is as little as Rs 200. We need a higher entry fee. Then, these tourists come in groups in jeeps, they slip the jeep driver a Rs 500 note and force the driver to propel the jeep ‘forward’ because they want a better look at the animals. I have heard shouting by tourists; some of them play music on their phones as they enter. The attitude is, we have come here on a picnic, let’s have a picnic.

There is noise, litter like plastic bottles are left behind, often, there are heated arguments with other groups, I have even heard tourist groups abuse forest officers. What we need is a changed mindset, controlled and regulated tourism.”

Dubey also punctures the argument about tiger tourism providing employment avenues to locals saying, “These small dhaabas and inns mushrooming everywhere, spoil the place, there is hardly any employment to locals -- about 2 to 3 per cent at the most. When three and four-star hotels spring up, they do not employ untrained, local labour. They bring in people from outside; the waiter working at a swank hotel will be a trained person, not an untrained person from nearby. There is also just a small percentage of local goods too that they use.”

In the end, Dubey says more than anything, it all boils down to will. The government must have the will to stop poaching. “There has to be some economic upliftment to combat poaching. A poacher commits a crime for as less as Rs 5,000 at times, so this is a social malaise. It needs to be tackled at that level too.”

Dubey, who has been going into forests and parks for 40 years now adds, “I do not think barring a few exceptions, people of this country are really serious about saving the tiger. In the first six months of 2012, 48 tigers have already died. Out of this, 19 have died due to poaching. Compare this with, 56 deaths in 2010 and 52 deaths in 2011. Given this fact, no tourism should be allowed in core areas. As a matter of fact even in the buffer zones, strictly regulated and limited tourism should be allowed. Tiger shows on elephant back must be stopped. Private cars inside tiger reserves should be totally banned. The solutions to save the tiger are fairly simple - what is needed is the will to save it,” he signs off.

Tourist Support
Tiger tourism though has its supporters. Like Deepika Singh, director marketing, of Garuda Resorts Pvt. Ltd under whose umbrella comes the Royal Tiger Resort located in Madhya Pradesh's Kanha National Park, “We are on the South Gate or Mukhi Gate, as it is known,” says Singh and adds, “Simply putting a ban on tiger tourism will have a widespread, negative impact. There has been no definitive study that says tourism has an adverse effect on tiger numbers.” Singh in fact, says that tiger tourism is a safeguard against poaching because of the infrastructure that is needed for tourism - the security guards etc. are the eyes and ears of the forest and they are a deterrent against poachers. “By making tourism out of bounds, it becomes a case of out of sight, out of mind. Nobody knows what is going on inside.”

With the 'no go' sign flashing in neon over tourism, Singh says, “Almost everywhere, certain areas of the Park are designated restricted areas, so tourists anyway do not have access to these protected areas.” Singh also says that resorts and hotels provide employment to locals, so that too, would be hit if tourism were banned.”

Confusing Case
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia and Member National Board for Wildlife also adds, “With the Supreme Court of India banning tourism in the core areas of national parks and sanctuaries in response to a Public Interest Litigation, clearly this is a case where the law has confused the current impact of tourism (negative) and the future potential of tourism for conservation (positive). Banning tourism because it is bad today is like banning cricket because there is gambling.

The answer surely is to regulate tourism and make it difficult or impossible for builders and contractors to turn forests to cement. By banning tourism in the core areas, the eyes and ears of non-governmental agencies have been walled out of forests where tree-cutting, illegal mining, road building, poaching and worse are rampant.”

Sahgal props up his argument with an example, “In a housing colony a visitor robs something. Would you enhance protection, or ban all visitors from entering the colony and allow only watchmen in? We are all looking for a solution. But 30 years of experience tells me that the forest departments of all states need watching too. What are we going to do when political pressure forces a Park Director to approve an illegal canal alignment through the core area of a park? That's only one possible (but very real) issue."

Sahgal then ends on a cautionary note, “We must remember at this point is that what we have been confronted with is an interim order. The Supreme Court has been a true friend of wildlife protecting our forests.

The court has been misled by officials into taking a 'no tourism' position. I think when the original Ecodevelopment Committee Report signed by the Chairman is made available to the Honorary Court, it will possibly see that strict regulation and sharing of revenues with communities is what the future of wildlife tourism should be.”

The Tiger
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears, And water'd heaven with their tears, Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
— William Blake

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