The Nonsense of No-Go Zones

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Why the Supreme Court’s ban on tourists in core areas of tiger reserves is bad news for the species

Last week, India’s Supreme Court (SC) banned tourism in the ‘core areas’ of tiger reserves across the country. This was in keeping with the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, and goals of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a body committed to keeping these core areas ‘inviolate’—defined in an NTCA affidavit as ‘without any disturbance by human beings’.

Tiger reserves in India are split into ‘core’ and ‘buffer’ zones as part of an NTCA plan for their management. As its website states: ‘The core area is kept free of collection of minor forest produce, grazing and all other human disturbances. However, the buffer zone is managed as a ‘multiple use area’ with the twin objectives of [acting as a] supplement to the spillover population of wild animals from the core area, and [of providing] site specific eco-developmental inputs to surrounding villages for relieving their impact on the core area.’

From that perspective, it may appear perfectly sensible to ban tourism from core areas. However, the practical experience of tiger conservation and evidence from the field suggest that this is a simplistic approach.

The SC passed its order—an interim one that will come up for review at the next hearing on 22 August—on the basis of a public interest litigation filed last year by Ajay Dubey, a public information activist of Bhopal. He had sought the Judiciary’s intervention to ensure the implementation of a 2008 directive issued by the NTCA, by which tourism was to be restricted to areas surrounding the main tiger habitats (‘buffer zones’, that is). Last year, the apex court directed all states to demarcate core and buffer areas of all tiger reserves, an order that many are yet to implement. Displeased with the tardy progress, the SC has now asked for a blanket ban on tourism in core areas.

Before this order, only four of India’s 40 tiger reserves did not allow tourists into core areas: Namdapha, Buxa, Melghat and Sunderbans. The first three of these offer few chances of sighting the striped cat anyhow, their ‘tiger density’ counts being so low. What is interesting is that India’s most frequented parks—Corbett, Kanha, Periyar, Ranthambore and Ban- dhavgarh, which together attract 150,000-200,000 visitors every year—not only have high tiger densities, they also boast of the most healthy tiger populations. This has been the case for the past 20 years. The health of tigers is clearly in no danger from tourism. In fact, there is reason to believe that tourism not only sustains local livelihoods, it also serves to keep poaching and other violations in check. Wildlife tourists love tigers, and they are earnest reporters of any suspicious activity they spot in these parks.

Further, according to an analysis of tiger populations in all 40 reserves by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), high tiger densities and daytime tourist visits are not incompatible.

While the WPSI says its analysis is based on “fairly raw” data, a few basic conclusions can still be drawn from it. Tiger densities vary vastly across reserves, ranging from 0.125 to 20 tigers per 100 sq km, and the denser habitats always attract more tourists. While 18 reserves have low density (and either no or minimal tourist traffic), nine have both high density and high tourist traffic in their core areas. Most of these have seen a tourism boom over the past few years, and the animals here have gotten so used to human presence that they remain oblivious to tourist vehicles and cameras as they go about their lives, prowling, hunting and mating.

Several reserves also have forest guest houses and state tourism guest houses within their core areas: such as Manas, Palamau, Bandipur, Bhadra, Periyar, Kanha, Dudhwa and Corbett. There are no private resorts. This is just as well. Overcrowding could stretch natural resources, leave a messy trail of waste, and disturb wild life. “There are genuine arguments for and against wildlife tourism, but the fact remains that all of India’s tiger reserves that have good or even moderate tiger populations also have daytime wildlife tourism in their core areas,” says Belinda Wright, who heads the WPSI, “This is not an argument, just a fact.”

Going by 2010 figures, there are 762 villages inside the core areas of 39 reserves, home to 48,549 resident families. Though they have had strained relations with wildlife authorities (except a few cases), their presence means that human traffic cannot be barred. At least 20 reserves have public roads, some of them national and state highways. NH-16, NH-7 and NH-31C, for example, pass through Indravati, Pench and Buxa, respectively. Corbett, Dudhwa, Panna and Sariska have state highways running across them. Palamau, Dudhwa, Valmiki and Buxa even have railway lines going through core zones. All this causes casualties. In February this year, a tigress was killed by an unidentified vehicle in Chandrapur, near Nagpur. Such accidents are not uncommon.

Also, by no means are tourists the only visitors to core areas of tiger reserves. Consider the case of Nagarjun Sagar, a tiger reserve that is better known for its Srisailam temple in the core area that draws pilgrims by the thousand from all over the country. Periyar, likewise, hosts the famous Sabarimala temple. Sariska and Ranthambore are not just famous for tigers, but also for the Ganesh and Pan-dupole temples, respectively. A million pilgrims are expected to walk though Ranthambore’s core tiger territory to attend the Ganesh Mela there later this month.

Can this influx of pilgrims be checked? By the NTCA’s eco-tourism guidelines, protected areas are tiger reserves in their entirety, even the pilgrim sites and sacred groves included in it. Techni- cally, pilgrims would be classified as tourists, and so the SC’s ban would also apply to them. But will the forest department be able to implement the ban

That Indian tigers are endangered is not in doubt. The blame for this rests with poachers who operate as part of the illicit international trade in tiger parts. But poachers don’t come as tourists.

Notably, the Government has never proposed a ban on tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves. The SC order seems to have taken it by surprise. Back in 2010, Jairam Ramesh, who was India’s environment minister at the time, had denied that any such ban was being envisaged. Rather, he was keen on what he called ‘eco-tourism’, which would be ‘compatible with the fragile landscape while providing enhanced livelihood to locals’, as the Government’s policy put it. Last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests even came up with draft guidelines for the promotion of eco-tourism in tiger reserves. “Tourism is essential,” Ramesh had once said, “Revenues from tourism must flow back directly into the management of each tiger reserve so that local communities can benefit.”

Consider the observations of a 2011 study by Krithi K Karanth and Ruth DeFries, Nature-based Tourism in Indian Protected Areas: New challenges for Park Management, carried out in Sariska, Ran- thambore, Kanha, Pench, Anshi Dandeli, Bhadra, Nagarhole, Bandhipur, Mudu- malai and Periyar:

» Nature-based tourism in India is on an upward trajectory

» Domestic tourism constitutes 80 per cent of all such tourism in India

» Most tourist facilities are privately owned

» 70 per cent of the tourist facilities have been established after 2000

» 97 per cent of the tourist facilities are outside protected areas

» It is easier to monitor and regulate tourist facilities in places where they are closely clustered: such as Periyar, Ranth- ambore, Kanha and Pench

» The proportion of locals employed in tourist facilities varies from 43 per cent in Sariska to 93 per cent in Bandipur and Mudumalai, though they are often in low-paid jobs

» Direct employment of locals in tourism in all protected areas is a tiny fraction— ranging from 0.0002 to 0.001 per cent—of the employable population

» All protected areas urgently need clear guidelines to govern tourists, vehicles and the use of water, wood and other resources by tourist facilities

» Domestic tourism presents a vital opportunity to educate people and mobilise support for conservation

Indeed, tourism is a conservation tool and should be used as such, believes Amit Sankhala, owner of Kanha Jungle Lodge and grandson of Kailash Sankhala, who played a pivotal role in setting up Project Tiger. “Many of us care passionately about our wildlife,” he says, “or we would not be here.” What he wants are “better policies to incentivise the best and squash the worst performers”.

There is no empirical study that shows or even suggests that daytime tourism harms the well-being of tigers. Till the SC’s order, park officials were allowing seven hours of tourist activity within reserves without any noticeable effect. And since most reserves are closed till Octo- ber, the impact of the court’s ban will not be known for a while yet. But the mood among tiger lovers is grim.

Conservationists fear that the campaign to save the tiger will lose not just public support, but also the extra pairs of eyes and ears that safeguard the animals from intruders. Putting a stop to the ‘jungle patrol’ of wildlife tourists, they say, would make it easier for poachers to enter core areas. No safaris would mean no citizen vigilance, and that means even less hope for the last of the species.