Following Tuesday’s Supreme Court judgement lifting a temporary ban on tourism in core tiger habitats, the lodges in tiger land heaved a sigh of relief. It’s a boon for wildlife tourists too, with the festive season round the corner.
Many of us have been saying that a ban would deprive us and our children of an opportunity to see a tiger in the wild, but I don’t know if anybody talked about the interests of the tiger or the forest dwellers for whom these guidelines were initially conceptualized.
Primarily, it was difficult to understand why the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) withdrew its initial guidelines, as I could not see much difference between that and the final guidelines except for a few clauses such as sharing of profit, which are softer.
In the guidelines conceptualized by NTCA, local people have the prerogative of benefiting from ecotourism.
Low-end tourism to benefit the locals was the main objective as also diverting tourist interest to biodiversity other than the tiger. However, everybody knows that wildlife tourism in India without tiger tourism is a flop. Maybe a tiny percentage is interested in birds, rhinos, elephants or reptiles, but even lions in Gir have been so tamed and trained that they don’t excite tourists.
But now, wildlife tourism is confined to tiger-bearing areas and the rest of the protected areas. We have given it the name of nature tourism, which means that it will not be high profile in nature and will be inclusive of local communities.
The apex court will hear this case again in the last week of November. But I am not clear what will be heard when the Supreme Court has directed states to finalize a tiger conservation plan within six months to get the go-ahead from NTCA.
Even previously, there was a committee to go through tiger conservation plans of each reserve, but it will not be out of place to mention that till date (even after nearly a year) not even one tiger conservation plan has got clearance. Then can you imagine how much time it would take to finalize these conservation plans for all the 41 reserves? It will be a bigger task because now the tiger conservation plans have to take the newly notified guidelines also into consideration.
Till then, tigers have to wait for the forest dwellers who were seeing a ray of hope for better living through low-end tourism. Now, NTCA has a new job: of clearing tiger conservation plans, and tigers will now be cornered by tour operators and forest dwellers will continue to clean clothes and utensils for the tourists.
P.K. Sen is a former director at Project Tiger.