CATFIGHT

Crouching Tourists, Hidden Tiger

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Behind the face-off between the wildlife tourism lobby and the Ministry of Environment and Forests lies a network of hidden interests that exercises monopoly power and prospers on hypocrisy and corruption. More than stricter regulations, it’s time for transparency

Behind the face-off between the wildlife tourism lobby and the Ministry of Environment and Forests lies a network of vested interests. Time for some transparency

BHOPAL, JAIPUR AND RAMNAGAR

HOW COME a country that is losing acres of forests and dozens of wild animals by the hour has time to debate, of all things, wildlife tourism?

It was late evening at Delhi’s India International Centre. After a rare screening of Pradeep Krishen’s Electric Moon, an excellent satire on desperate brown sahibs and their ingenious ways of conning unsuspecting foreign wildlife tourists, a few guests were animatedly discussing the merits of a proposed ban on tourism in critical tiger forests. An elderly lady stood there listening for a while, before popping the exasperated question.
The answer may seem obvious, but it is not. Wildlife tourism is mostly concentrated in areas where tigers and other big animals are relatively abundant. So the nature of tourism has a direct bearing on India’s more successful conservation stories. Since such success stories are still few and far between, the country had better not take chances.

On the surface, battlelines appear drawn between the Government and the wildlife tourism lobby on this very idealistic premise. Scratch this surface, though, and it becomes a no-holds-barred battle between sarkari power and private profit. What makes this an almost even contest is the presence of big corporate chains, the not-so-secret stake of many renowned conservationists, and the unusual interest of many top forest officers in wildlife tourism.

On 9 September 2010, the Jabalpur High Court asked the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Madhya Pradesh forest department to respond to a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking an immediate stay on tourism in core forest areas. Chief Wildlife Warden HS Pabla, the top custodian of wildlife in Madhya Pradesh, was on a tour, but he promptly swung into action. A few minutes before the midnight of 14 September, he emailed some of the state’s top tourism players, warning them of the PIL and urging them to join hands ‘to protect’ their interests.

Open has a copy of this tell-tale email sent out by Pabla. It reads:

‘This is to let you know that a PIL (WP no. 12352/2010 – Ajay Dube Vs NTCA and Others) has been filed in the high court of MP Jabalpur, which, among other things, seeks a ban on tourism in the core zones of tiger reserves. The applicant has also preyed (sic) for an iimmediate (sic) stay. Although the government of MP will oppose this application, lodge owners, travel operators, guides etc may also like to implead themselves as affected parties if you want to be sure that this PIL doesn’t succeed. As the case may have serious consequences for you people, kindly take whatever steps you think will be appropriate to protect your interests. As I am travelling and do not have the mail IDs of all of you, kindly inform others who will be affected by this case.’
Not surprising, then, that when the PIL subsequently came up for court hearing last week, around a dozen interventions were submitted. Among the interveners were a slew of hotel associations from Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench, and a few NGOs.

While the NTCA told the court that core critical forest areas were “required to be kept as inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation, without affecting the rights of Scheduled Tribes or such forest dwellers”, in his reply, Pabla claimed that he (as chief wildlife warden) was the supreme authority on such decisions in the state, and that tourism aided the protection of forests and wildlife. The next hearing is scheduled on 6 December.

Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, there are some questions best answered by Principal Chief Conservator of Forests RN Mehrotra, the man who orchestrated the controversial tiger reintroduction programme that suffered its first casualty last week, when a male tiger was poisoned to death. Busy relocating a few villages in order to secure an ‘inviolate tiger habitat’ in Sariska, Mehrotra must have had his hands full. But the boss of the state forest establishment has still got time for a new, and secret, pet project.

For many decades, the medieval fort of Kankwari, where Aurangzeb is said to have imprisoned his brother Dara Shikoh, lay in ruins deep inside the Sariska reserve. Today, while hundreds of families are being moved out of Kankwari village, the fort atop a hillock a few hundred yards away is getting a silent makeover.

Forest officers in the field are tight-lipped, and Mehrotra has not replied to queries, but state Chief Wildlife Warden HM Bhatia admits that the renovation was funded by the state tourism department. “Our policy is to promote eco-tourism,” he explains, “We do not allow people to stay inside forests, but we will work out an arrangement keeping the safety of tourists and the security of wild animals in mind.”

In New Delhi, NTCA officials say they are not aware of any renovation or eco-tourism proposal at Kankwari, adding that any non-forest activity would need official clearances from several central authorities. Says former Rajasthan PCCF BD Sharma: “If the tourism department has funded the renovation, the purpose is obvious. But eco-tourism cannot happen inside core areas. Whether they make it a day or night facility, how will they justify the disturbance, especially after removing an entire village from that area?”

THE PROPOSAL to ban tourism in critical tiger forests was not an idea chanced upon by a bureaucrat in a eureka moment. It has been a legal necessity since the 2006 amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, that requires all critical tiger habitats to be ‘inviolate’—out of bounds for human use. As a result, more than 50,000 forest dwelling families have been earmarked for rehabilitation, and many thousands have already been moved out.
To many, it does not make any moral sense to have lodges and resorts inside a forest where villages have been uprooted to facilitate conservation. Ashish Kothari, member of several government panels and a champion of forest dwellers’ rights, feels such hypocrisy that allows speeding safari cars and plush tourist facilities in national parks after forcibly evicting local villagers only results in loss of popular support for conservation.
But when Dr Rajesh Gopal, member-secretary of the NTCA, accepted that government policies had no room for double standards, the tourism lobby went up in arms. Ironically, most conservationists who have always been quite vocal in demanding the eviction of villages from core forests have somehow preferred to maintain a diplomatic silence this time round. Not surprising, because most of them either run businesses or have made serious investments in high-profile reserves across the country.

Soon, Environment & Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh stepped in to issue a statement that the Ministry never had any plan to ban tourism, but it would be strictly regulated in the 39 Project Tiger reserves, particularly in designated core areas. He also said that the Ministry was working on detailed guidelines for promoting eco-tourism in line with the carrying capacity of individual reserves.

Far from clearing the picture, this has triggered fresh speculation about the nature and extent of ‘strict regulations’. So even as the Ministry works on the promised guidelines, some industry bigwigs and conservation heavyweights are busy finding ways to influence these clauses.

In public, the tourism lobby has been arguing its case on what it calls four crucial spin-offs for conservation. First, tourism brings in money and can make our cash-starved reserves financially self-sufficient. Second, wildlife tourism creates awareness and builds a stronger constituency for conservation. Third, the presence of tourists keeps a forest safe from poachers and other intruders, as evident from the relative abundance of animals and trees in tourism zones in any forest. Fourth, tourism absorbs local workers and reduces their dependence on forests for livelihood.

Forest officials promptly counter these arguments. They point out that the forests are not leased out to private managements in India, and anyway, the Centre has increased the budget manifold in the past five years. While accepting that tourists do amount to extra pairs of vigilant eyes, they add that all tourism zones already had a hearty abundance of animals before they were designated as such, and, in fact, successful conservation efforts behind such abundance were the reason these areas were earmarked as tourism zones in the first place.

Samir Sinha, a senior forest officer now with Traffic-India, wants the wildlife tourism sector to put its money where its mouth is. “On paper, wildlife tourism creates mass awareness for conservation and financially empowers the local workforce. What we have on the ground are mostly tourists who casually litter our forests and bribe guides to chase wild animals. Most resorts hire locals for menial jobs and pay a pittance,” he rues.

Dr Gopal points out how tourism has become brazenly intrusive: “Isn’t the result (of irresponsible tourism) there for everyone to see? They surround animals with vehicles, build resorts blocking wildlife corridors, dump garbage in eco-sensitive areas, and even exploit local villagers. Even the Tourism Ministry accepted such issues in a recent report. Nobody is against tourism, but they must act as responsible stakeholders.”

Many in the wildlife tourism sector, on the other hand, wag fingers at the dictatorial, corrupt and vindictive ways of the forest department. In most upscale reserves, last-minute permits and reservations are available at an extra cost. In Ranthambore, for example, hotels could get away with almost anything if they obliged forest officers by hosting their private functions or offering jobs to their relatives. In Corbett, if a hotel-owner pointed out instances of illegal tree-felling, he would be singled out and his safari permits would get squeezed. The list of such backroom manoeuvres is long.

A senior officer in the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), in fact, accepts that a section of forest officers are against the so-called proposal for a blanket ban on tourism in critical tiger habitats as it would affect their earnings. Now, he adds, these officers should be happy, as stricter regulations would offer better avenues for “milking” tourism.

THIS TRADING of charges blurs the larger picture. And that picture is scary. Each upscale tiger reserve has its ‘carrying capacity’ (maximum number of tourists it can accommodate in a day) worked out. Compare that figure with the annual occupancy count in the hotels around that reserve. Depending on a reserve’s profile, the occupancy will be 30–100 per cent higher than the maximum number of people who can enter the forest for a safari.

Unfortunately, exact occupancy figures are not available simply because nobody is keeping a tab. But take Corbett, for example. Even in the peak season with all tourism zones in operation, the reserve cannot accommodate more than 700 tourists on safari a day. The hotel occupancy ought to be significantly less if you factor in day visitors (who do not stay overnight) and tourists who go on both morning and evening safaris.

There are about 100 small and big hotels around Corbett. At a conservative average of 30 double-bed rooms per property, that amounts to 3,000 double-bed rooms or 6,000 tourists a day. At an average high-season occupancy of 25 per cent, it translates to 1,500 tourists a day—more than double the number that can enter the reserve.

On a yearly scale, the mismatch looks more ominous. Factoring in the monsoon closure, a maximum of 190,000 tourists can enter Corbett in a year. In 2008-09, actual entries were recorded at about 180,000. But non-wildlife tourists visit Corbett round the year. Based on our previous assessment, a more modest average occupancy of 20 per cent adds up to 220,000 double-rooms a year or more than 400,000 tourists.

Clearly, hundreds of thousands of tourists, who apparently have no interest in forests or wildlife and do not even bother to visit the reserve, crowd around our forests regularly. Some come for extended sessions of corporate unwinding, others for rowdy weddings. More and more multi-star hotels come up behind high walls to accommodate them and choke forest corridors. These throngs, almost entirely with no motive other than leisure, end up raising levels of sound and light pollution with their late-night parties, draining vital resources like water, and leaving behind tonnes of garbage. Whether tourism is banned or regulated inside core forests, this monstrous non-wildlife crowd will continue to swell beyond the jurisdiction of the forest department, unless other agencies of the Government step in to staunch the flow.

Hotels within a stipulated distance from a forest should be allowed only if they maintain a generous open land to built-up area ratio. Any use of water and electricity by a hotel, above a reasonable quota specified according to its land size, should be steeply charged. A strict no-sound-no-light policy should be enforced in the late evenings, and a steep garbage tax levied with a carry-it-back policy. Once non-eco establishments transfer this substantial extra cost to non-wildlife tourists and refuse to offer them DJs by the pool, this crowd will gradually shift their corporate junkets and marriages away from forests.

WHAT ABOUT the other bulk of tourists who insist on entering forests for wildlife safaris but are usually in picnic mode? Is it not the responsibility of hoteliers and tour operators to ensure that their clients follow rules, learn to respect the wilderness and possibly go back better educated?
Unfortunately, just about no one follows even the basics of the existing MoEF guidelines dating back to 2003. For example, the minimum mandatory distance between two safari vehicles should be 500 metres. At all times, a tourist vehicle or safari elephant should maintain a minimum distance of 30 metres from a wild animal. The photographs on these pages tell the real story.

While a number of players blame such irresponsible tourism for hurting the reputation of this sector, there is little effort to form a self-regulatory body to enforce strict industry norms. Instead, some pass the buck to forest staff, blaming them for turning a blind eye to such unruly tourists just because they come from ‘friendly’ hotels or tour operators. Others shrug, saying that “the good guys are just too few to control the bad ones”.

The result is one big mess. Travel Operators for Tigers, a campaign for responsible use of wild habitats in India, sums up the malaise by observing that wildlife tourism often suffers from badly motivated tourists, poorly informed guides, apathy towards local communities, excessive tiger-centricism, and vexed relations with park officials.

So, even the strictest of regulations will remain vulnerable to manipulation, unless the new guidelines institutionalise some transparency. There are a few pioneering eco-tourism projects that stand out in forests otherwise overrun by the rent-a-tiger tourism mafia. These rare green efforts may soon be forced out of business if the profit-spinning mafia continues to buy its way and forest officers get away with bending rules.

Says PK Sen, former director, Project Tiger: “The new set of guidelines should be made binding through legislation, with provisions for strict punishment for violation. However, its implementation will still depend on individual states. Legally, a shift from the core to the buffer areas is inevitable. We may not have too many good buffer forests today, but if the tourism lobby really means well, it can use its clout and money to encourage community conservation efforts around critical tiger forests. It will help both conservation and tourism.”

Implemented fairly, no pro-conservation regulation may hit the wildlife tourism sector too hard. The few who already have their eco-advantage will find it easier to cope, because, as conservationist Bittu Sahgal points out, it is high time “we offered real nature experiences and not expect tourists to just gawk at the tiger and pay for the privilege”.

Successful eco-tourism businesses can inspire a paradigm shift. As for outsized luxury properties, there is no reason why they should mind investing in buffer conservation so that the big animals begin to show up there. The rest, who have made crores by exploiting the Government’s investment in conservation and vulnerability of officials to corruption, might also continue to do well in whichever sector they switch to.

The author is an independent journalist