The Supreme Court will on Wednesday assess whether state governments have complied with its order to notify core and buffer areas of tiger reserves in line with the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, after banning organized tourism in breeding grounds of the big cats to aid conservation efforts.
The apex court was compelled to issue a final warning on 24 July after a 3 April directive to Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Entourage: Tourist vehicles follow a tiger on a safari at Ranthambhore. Photo: Aditya Singh
The court acted after hearing that except Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh, the other states had not filed affidavits and were yet to notify the core areas, which include the breeding grounds.
In 2006, tiger reserves were defined by an amendment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. A tiger reserve should consist of two parts— a core, or critical, tiger habitat (having the status of a national park or a sanctuary), and a buffer, or peripheral, area comprising general forest or revenue area, or a combination of both.
The core areas need to be exclusively managed for tigers by maintaining them as inviolate areas, free of human intervention, and with the highest degree of protection, while the buffer areas need to be managed by involving the local people to safeguard the interest of tigers and other wildlife spilling out from the core areas.
Research data indicates that in a core area, breeding tigresses requires an inviolate space of 800-1,200 sq. km to breed a viable population of 80-100 tigers.
The tiger is at the top of the food chain, and a healthy tiger population ensures viable populations of other wild animals in the forests, assuring a robust ecosystem. The buffer areas with forest connectivity are essential for tiger dispersal; such areas foster sub-adults, young tigers, transients and old tigers. The balance is maintained when the young tigers from the buffer zone periodically replace the ageing males and females from the source population in the core area.
Over the years, tourism operators have settled in the land around the tiger reserves, at times even grabbing land unscrupulously to build walled resorts, hotels, motels and souvenir shops. These tourism hotspots not only occupy land crucial for the tiger, but also use up natural resources (water, wood, stone and sand) and pollute the habitat.
Most of them do not comply with the ethics or guidelines of ecotourism.
Moreover, forest land owned by tribal communities—the original dwellers—has been leased to big resorts for as long as 90 years. The land could not be bought, so big hoteliers found out leasing was the easy way out.
Ironically, members of the tribal communities are today employed in menial jobs in these resorts on the land they once owned. They have low-paying jobs and live in pathetic conditions while the tourism lobby boasts of creating employment for the locals.
A study on nature tourism in India by Krithi Karanth and Ruth DeFries, “Nature-based tourism in Indian protected areas: New challenges for park management,” published in Conservation Letters, reveals that 85% of the resorts are within a 5km radius of all tiger reserves, with 72% of these resorts having been constructed in the past decade.
A few more resorts are getting built around famous national parks in violation of ecological norms. Encroachment into the corridors and buffer zones of tiger reserves has turned the sanctuaries into isolated forest islands where the passage of animals from one forest to another is no longer possible without human encounter.
This restriction in movement has resulted in inbreeding and a weak gene pool.
Tourism in tiger reserves is primarily an economic activity —a money spinner. This was the reason why the tourism lobby was so agitated by the court order last month.
The lobby argued that a ban on tiger tourism will spell doom for the big cat. A prominent conservationist and resort owner said, “Tourists are the eyes and ears of wildlife. By banning tourism in core areas, you are banning the most important tool of monitoring in these parks.”
Conservationists see this as an opportunity lost for discussions and debates on buffer zones. Many say the focus, following the court order, should have been on creation and protection of buffer areas and corridors for the free movement of animals, especially the tiger, but it was diverted to revolve around the welfare of wildlife tourism.
Although the plight of the tiger has caught the nation’s imagination, that of its habitat has been ignored.
The late Kailash Sankhala, Project Tiger’s first director, voiced his concern in the 1970s book Tiger.
“I would suggest we concentrate on creating reserves where man’s interference—or what he arrogantly calls ‘scientific management’—is minimal,” Sankhala wrote. “The pleasure of a visit to a natural area has been destroyed by the influx of tourists with their transistors and trailers. I would condemn even the camera, except in case of professionals who employ their skill to interpret nature for the benefit of those millions who never get the chance to visit these gardens of Eden.
“The casual visitor is always in a hurry, and if he takes pictures he fails to see anything around him; his mind is preoccupied with shutter speeds, lens openings and focusing. Many a wildlife photographer does not hesitate to disturb, sometimes even kill an animal, pluck a flower or destroy a tree to suit his picture. The visitor to a reserve should bring with him nothing but a receptive mind, and take away nothing but the understanding that he is only a small part of the whole complex pattern of nature’s ecology.”
In December 2006, the Supreme Court had issued directions to all tiger-ranging states on the notification of the ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ), a 10km ring of restricted land use around all national parks and sanctuaries. In the last five years, the Centre and the states have only been debating provisions of the ESZ.
Now that the fight between the forest department and conservationists and the wildlife tourism sector is out in the open, it would be interesting to see what will be the outcome of the new court directive, given the high economic stakes involved.
The article has been corrected to give an attribution to a cited study on nature tourism in India.