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May 08, 2012

Wildlife Tourism A Free-For-All Loot

Rampant illegal construction of ‘resorts’ in tiger habitats like Corbett must stop immediately

08 May 2012

Prerna Singh Bindra: Aptly titled, ‘Corbett, now on sale’, a story in a weekly magazine brought an open secret out in print: The land around — and even inside — the Corbett Tiger Reserve is up for grabs, controlled by the country’s Who’s Who. It highlighted how tourism resorts have destroyed the Kosi river corridor, cutting off access for animals to a crucial water source. This matter had in fact first come to light in a report, ‘Impact of tourism on tigers and other wildlife of Corbett’, published in January 2010. Over two years have passed since then, but the powers that be haven’t moved a muscle to regulate the resorts whose numbers have only increased — and this is in spite of the intervention of none less than the Prime Minister himself.

Most resorts in Corbett have flouted every law of the land, from changing the course of the Kosi to baiting tigers so that tourists can have a glance at the big cat. Ugly, humongous structures offer an array of attractions that have little to do with wildlife: Discotheques, rain dances, night safaris and even quad-biking on the riverbed. One particularly insensitive resort extolled the fact that it was right “on the bank of Kosi river close to the spot where a tiger attacked and killed a women” (sic), perhaps trying glamourise the “man-eater”, and encash on it.

Now, we learn that the cancer has spread to the other side in the Durgadevi zone. Land along the 17km stretch of the Ramganga River — the lifeline of Corbett — has been bought by influential outsiders with a motive to develop it for tourism.

The Corbett landscape has amongst the highest densities of tigers in the world, and also the highest density of hotels around any reserve in the country. While Corbett leads the pack, tourism infrastructure is destroying vital wildlife corridors in Mudumalai, Kanha, Kaziranga, Pench — the list goes on. Even lesser known parks like Gorumara in North Bengal are succumbing to the onslaught. In some reserves, the problem is only now cropping up and must be nipped in the bud. A recent visit to the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Karnataka showed that the pristine forests adjacent to the reserve are being pillaged by ugly construction, largely fancy resorts and gated colonies for metro-dwellers looking for a weekend home. These forests connect Bhadra with other reserve forests, onward to the Shettihalli Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kudremukh National Park. Scientific documentation exists of the regular movement of endangered wildlife such as tigers, leopards and elephants along this corridor. Not just private resorts, but the forest department’s own tourism infrastructure has taken up crucial meadows inside core areas of tiger reserves — the Kanha meadows and Dhikala in Corbett are classic examples.

We all know that tigers need inviolate habitats to survive. To facilitate this, there is a major effort to relocate villages that are inside core critical tiger habitats. It isn’t an easy task, made all the more difficult when locals perceive they’re being ‘displaced’ while the ‘rich outsiders’ — tourists — move in. So, is tourism ‘evil’? Is it ‘killing’ tigers?

The matter is sub judice. At least the question of whether tourism should find place in core/critical tiger habitats, is.

Tourism is a double-edged sword. Regulated and managed sustainably, it is among the best ways to win support for conservation and provide livelihood options to communities around reserves.

In its current form, the benefits of ‘tiger tourism’ accrue to a select few, as it has been established by a study published in Conservation Letters by Karanth et al, which says that 95 per cent of revenue generated from such commercial ventures goes into private hands while the reserve gets less than five per cent; local communities receive not even a measly 0.5 per cent. Yes, tourists do serve as a vigilant third eye but that has a limited role. The huge influx of tourists in Sariska and Panna could not save the tiger there. And, to everyone’s surprise, tigers have survived against the worst odds in Similipal’s core where no tourists are allowed to venture, or in the non-tourism areas of Corbett. It hurts to say this, but sadly, the tiger has become a cash cow which we are milking dry.

It is not just tiger reserves that suffer from such irrational tourism models. Innumerable instances come to mind, especially of charming hill stations and pristine beaches desecrated by monstrous hotels and so-called ‘eco-resorts’.

Unplanned tourism infrastructure can wreak havoc with our priceless natural heritage. A glaring example is the proposed road through Flamingo City in Gujarat — an unmitigated disaster for India’s only nesting site for these graceful birds. Though the reason cited for the road is ‘national security’, it’s a well-known fact that the primary purpose is tourism: The proposed road passes through major tourist attractions. The proposal to construct it ‘coincides’ with the Government’s efforts to sell the Rann as a major tourism attraction in Gujarat. The Rann Utsav in itself has invited criticism as the heavy influx of tourists is negatively impacting the fragile desert ecology of the region. In Ladakh, the calm of Tsomoriri Lake — now labelled ‘Three Idiots’ lake, after the Bollywood film shot here — has been shattered with the rush of ‘film’ tourism, disturbing migratory birds.

Such examples are endless. Fortunately, there are a number of good ones too. In Arunachal’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, researchers and serious tourists pay the local tribal council for conducting research in the forest and for accommodation and field assistance drawn from the reserve’s indigenous tribes. Community-based  tourism is best seen in Rumbak, a village in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park. Locals provide home-stays to people on the trail of the elusive snow leopard, which has helped them see the predator as an asset rather than an enemy killing their livestock.

Such models need replication.

In its current form, wildlife tourism is intrusive and counter productive — killing the very product it ‘markets’. A rational policy which strictly restricts and regulates tourism infrastructure that impedes critical habitats and corridors and ensures that profits are ploughed back to parks and benefit local communities, is the need of the hour.