For someone who fell in love with wildlife at a Tiger Reserve, the Supreme Court’s ban on all tourism activities in the core areas of the Tiger Reserves comes as a huge shock. My tryst with wildlife started at the Nagarhole National Park and at Bandipur National Park, both Tiger Reserves. I spent 6 months volunteering as a naturalist at Bandipur, which quickly became my second home. Over time, the increase in crowds to these parks due to Tiger tourism and my own need to explore different habitats, made me travel lesser and lesser to Tiger Reserves and more to the unexplored and lesser known rainforests of the Western Ghats. Tiger tourism is different from tourism in Tiger Reserves. While one focuses on promoting the spotting of the big cat, the other is tourism in Tiger Reserves to see the different kinds of flora and fauna. While I completely support the idea of very restricted and well controlled tourism in these areas, I think a blanket ban is a bad idea.
The Supreme Court says no to tourism in “core areas” of Tiger Reserves. To rephrase this correctly, it means almost no tourism in any Tiger Reserves. Most of the buffer zone in which tourism is now intended is usually the neighboring village settlements and secondary forests and in most of these buffer areas one hardly gets to experience the full richness of the bio-diversity. Like most extreme measures this too has its own set of problems. Most of the conservationists, researchers, wildlife photographers and filmmakers I’ve met, first fell in love with the Jungles through the eyes of Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson followed by frequent trips to the wild to spot elephants, tigers and leopards. Since spotting animals in the Indian jungles is difficult, some slowly started looking up at the birds, some below to snakes and frogs; and some to the plants and trees around. Controlled wildlife tourism has been a powerful tool to increase the awareness among people about our bio-diversity leading to conservation.
I have been involved in teaching children about bio-diversity and can confidently say that the love and connect happens when they see and experience these animals for real and not on television or Ipads. The sparkle in the eyes, the racing heartbeat and adrenaline rush when someone spots an elephant herd or a tiger is hardly the same as watching a documentary. So how will the next generation of researchers, conservationists, photographers, filmmakers and policymakers fall in love with our bio-diversity? Like Baba Dioum said “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” So who are we protecting our forests from? Poachers, land sharks and development or our future. In the last few years of my time in the wild, I’ve come across very few cases of poaching in tourism areas. Poaching tends to take place in areas where there’s little or no access. A few tourists with cameras have in fact served to document our rich biodiversity not to mention irregularities and administration failures in National Park. In fact, our under-staffed and under-equipped forest department can use tourism to their advantage.
Most tourists who travel to these exotic wildlife destinations spend anywhere between Rs. 5,000 – Rs. 20,000 per person per day to get a glimpse of the rare cat or spot some animals and birds. Until now there was a simpler, more controlled mechanism for everyone to travel through governed bodies to these National Parks. Now with the ban, the pressure on the forest department to utilize forest guest houses for entertaining those with the ‘connect’ will only increase. The already lean staff force who are neither trained nor equipped to handle tourists will now be burdened with aspects of hospitality when their time can be better used for the protection of forests. Those National Parks that have not yet been declared Tiger Reserves and don’t come under the ban but do have healthy animal populations and are also fragile habitats will now be under extreme pressure and will lead to more drastic problems.
Most resorts near the Tiger Reserves have provided excellent employment for locals. A lot of the hunter/gatherers in neighboring areas have now stopped venturing into the forests because of wildlife tourism. This also means that there is lesser human activity in the jungles from local settlements to gather firewood etc. The ban can suddenly change the whole balance in these areas, with thousands of people losing jobs, many who can then potentially indulge in activities that could be illegal/detrimental for the survival of the very animal that this ban is trying to prevent.
Wildlife tourism also brings in large revenue to the forest department, most of this goes directly to the local range in which tourism happens. A significant part of these funds are also used for betterment of local communities in the surrounding areas. Some of the resorts also assist the forest department with their jeeps and man power for maintenance work in the National Parks. These resources have come in extremely handy in times of forest fires and have possibly saved hundreds of acres of forest.
Why must all our steps be extreme? Africa has some of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world which are extremely well preserved and protected. At the same time their major source of revenue is tourism. They use tourism and the revenue it generates to maintain the parks, rehabilitate poachers as guides and workers. Some wildlife reserves in Africa are now facing unique problems because of thriving Elephant population. The solution lies in striking the right balance. Controlled, regulated tourism can be a great tool in preserving and conserving our forests and its bio-diversity. I completely agree with this article “Come clean or clear out”, it brings together some great points on how we can regulate and keep our forests clear of the mayhem we create. As history teaches us, most extreme measures have been recipes to disaster.