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Cat among the pigeons

Kaushal Kishore Rai is a gifted man. He can sense a tiger’s presence just by the sights and sounds inside the jungles. As a guide in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, he has been steering wildlife enthusiasts to the exact location of the beasts for over 20 years now.

Right now, though, Rai senses danger of another kind. “I was about to apply for a loan to buy a tourist jeep just in time for the new season that starts in October. Now I’m not sure if I can even keep my job as a guide,” he says. Rai’s pessimism stems from a recent Supreme Court interim order directing that no tourists be allowed in the core areas of some 40 tiger reserves in the nation.

In Panna, the core area means the whole reserve. A ban on tourism there means thousands of people dependent on the reserve may have to look for other means of livelihood. In Ranthambore in Rajasthan, too, the entire reserve is core. “One thing is for sure: if there’s no future for us, there’ll be no future for the tigers,” says Devinder Singh, a guide at the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

Singh is just back from a dharna in Jaipur, organised to press the state government to persuade the apex court to review its decision. It seems to have worked — at least temporarily. Earlier this week, the central government, which had asked for a ban, took a sudden U-turn, requesting the court not to prohibit tourism in core areas.

With the court sticking to its guns — on Wednesday it ordered that the ban, in place since July, will continue — tens of thousands of people working in jungle lodges, hotels, homestays and other fields related to tiger tourism are faced with losing their sources of livelihood. Experts say that a middle path needs to be worked out, taking on board all the stakeholders.

The interim ban is based on the 2011 “Guidelines for Ecotourism in and around Protected Areas” proposed by the ministry of environment and forests. “We had the best intentions in mind when we issued them. Perhaps we should have taken more time to work out the issues with the states,” says a ministry official.

The guidelines followed a directive the ministry issued in 2008, directing that tourism be shifted from the critical tiger habitats — the core areas — to buffer zones to be formed around the core areas. The idea was to safeguard the tiger — of which just 1,700 survive in India today. The directive, however, was ignored by most states. West Bengal is one of the few where the core area (in the Sunderbans) is completely closed to tourists.

The states have been resisting, because tourism brings in good money — as it does for the private sector. “Both the state and central governments and hotels that have mushroomed around the sanctuaries and reserves are to be blamed for the mess we are in. Both have to step back a bit and ask the apex court to work out a package that is good for everybody,” says Mandip Singh Soin, president, Ecotourism Society of India, a non-profit organisation with government representatives and private stakeholders among its members.

Soin gives the example of Corbett National Park which is visited by 4,000 people every day during season, but can accommodate not more than 600-700 people. “Hotel owners now organise conferences and marriage receptions which is criminal,” Soin says.

The problem, eco-tourism experts point out, is that tigers are mostly to be found in the core areas. And since tourism is promoted as a tiger-spotting exercise, the core areas get more footfalls than what’s healthy for the tiger population to thrive. “It has become a severe problem in a few tiger reserves where ‘tiger tourism’ — an obsession with watching habituated tigers — has developed over the past decade. Places such as Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Ranthambore typify this,” says K.Ullas Karanth, director of Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society.

The government’s argument is that tigers can be sighted from buffer zones. However, the buffer zones — if and when they are earmarked — may include a host of hotels and lodges which will have to be relocated or shut down. And that will affect both the public and the private sectors.

Though there are no official figures for revenues from tiger reserve tourism, it is believed to run into hundreds of crores of rupees. Madhya Pradesh earns around Rs 15 crore in gate money alone from Panna, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. The state government had previously estimated that hotels around Kanha have a total turnover of around Rs 50 crore a year. It is estimated that around 20 lakh people visit tiger reserves every year.

If the guideline of not having any hotel in the forested areas are followed, several state governments may have to close their jungle lodges. Among them are the Rajasthan tourism department’s Jhoomar Baori lodge in Ranthambore and the Indian Tourism Development Corporation’s lodge inside the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur.

“These lodges are in the core areas. And they are great revenue generators. I don’t think the state governments will kill their golden goose,” says Dharmedra Khandal, a conservation biologist with Tiger Watch, an NGO in Ranthambore, where there are some 70 hotels with room rates ranging between Rs 1,000 and Rs 25,000.

Khandal adds that the Rajasthan government has notified small pieces of land as buffer areas under pressure from the Supreme Court but some of these parcels of land do not even border the reserve. “You are asking state governments to do something that they simply cannot do,” he says.

There is also opposition from the mining industry. Mines abut the would-be buffer areas in many of the sanctuaries, and there is pressure on state governments not to allow buffer areas to come up.

Ajay Dubey, the founder of Prayatna, an NGO in Madhya Pradesh, hopes that the issue will be resolved now that the matter is before the Supreme Court. “It’s time for a new policy,” says Dubey, who petitioned the court last year, asking for the government’s directives to be followed.

Actor and wildlife enthusiast Sabyasachi Chakraborty agrees. “I hope the Supreme Court seriously considers this issue. Only people who are serious about conservation and research should be allowed into the reserves. There are too many picnickers visiting national parks these days,” he says. “But it (the ban) should be done in phases. Too many peoples’ livelihoods are at stake.”

Others blame the environment ministry for coming up with rules that are not in keeping with the realities on the ground. “Whether it is tourism or human settlements, we need site- specific strategies to determine what is and what is not acceptable, and these need to be determined based on all available knowledge (modern and traditional), and democratically, not only by a bureaucratic agency or small sets of so-called experts,” says Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, an environmental NGO.

The argument continues, while Vishal Singh, director, Travel Operators for Tigers-India, looks bleakly into the future. “We cannot bring tourists to watch the cows graze,” he says despondently.