Who are the groups that are shocked by the Supreme Court ban on tourism in core tiger forests? The tourist-photographers who brazenly flout rules for a few indulgent ‘likes’ on social networking sites; hoteliers who build properties blocking wildlife corridors, guzzle natural resources and make dumping grounds of forests; experts who are too busy raising awareness and money to set an example of good practices in the resorts they own or patronise; and forest staff who make a fortune by presiding over this frightening mess.
The welcome court order slapped this lot out of their comfort zone. For now, it is a blow to their business-as-usual ethics rather than their business. The ban has come after the monsoon closure of all tiger reserves and, in all likelihood, will be relaxed by the time the parks open. One would want them to use the time to introspect, or maybe feel a tad chastened. Instead, they are whining like a bunch of pampered kids.
All over social media, their verdict is that the ban will spell the end of the tiger. Yes, tourists do keep an eye on the easily wayward forest staff, if not the tiger, and yes, they do significantly boost accountability. The flipside, however, is equally stark. If the forest personnel were left to undo the damage done by tourists, they would not have much time for anything else. Policing is one liability. Most of us are witness to how dozens of tourist vehicles line up at sighting points, almost boxing in the tiger that has unwisely shown up. Fewer are familiar with spectacles of tourists getting off vehicles deep inside tiger forests and blissfully wandering into the bushes to answer nature’s calls.
Cleaning up after the tourists is another herculean task. While Gypsies usually stick to forest roads and the trash on their trail can be collected by a follow-up drive, there is no way one can pick up after the tourists on an elephant safari. I have seen biscuit and wafer covers in grasslands, mineral water bottles on riverbeds and tobacco sachets, well, everywhere. At any forest rest house complex, some of which spread out like villages, the canteens sell everything that you can buy at a regular corner shop and the phenomenal appetite of the tourists ensures massive loads of garbage that ungulates feed and choke on. Often, the canteen workers simply set such dumps on fire.
If tourists really pride themselves on their “indirect patrolling” keeping poachers away, they can continue the service in the buffer forests which are usually the gateway to the core areas. They need not worry about tiger sightings either. Given the spin-offs attributed to tourism, there is no reason why the buffer forests will not dramatically improve as habitats and attract enough big cats.
Another argument doing the rounds is the need to learn from the African experience where ranches are run deep inside forests with local communities. This is nonsense. First, the expanse of the African wilderness is not comparable to our small pocket forests. Second, with the exception of the Congo basin, the forests and savanna of Africa usually allow wildlife sighting from a fair distance, a convenience rarely enjoyed in India due to thicker vegetation. In any case, there are serious issues over the number of vehicles and gas balloons hanging too low even in famed reserves such as Masai Mara.
The co-opting of Masai tribals in tourism is often touted as a triumph of inclusive conservation. In reality, it has resulted in the disempowerment of the tribe in Kenya and Tanzania where they are allowed to stay inside reserves to serve the ranches run by the whites but have become strangers in their own land due to total exclusion from the decision making process. The fate of our tribes, often used as conservation props or menial workers by tour operators and hotels, is worse.
This does not mean we should or can do without wildlife tourism. A whole set of legal restrictions in and around forests disallows industries, resulting in limited livelihood options. Ecologically sustainable tourism, in fact, can be the mainstay of such local economies. But the few good people in the business complain how the system is tailor-made for corrupt profiteering that has become synonymous with tourism. While nothing justifies a total lack of self-policing — there is not a single association of wildlife tourism organisations that can regulate the sector — the official policies are indeed banal and ridden with loopholes. Even the new eco-tourism guidelines drawn up by the Centre offer no incentive to good practices and are conveniently vague on punishing violators.
As in tourism, it is unfair to tar all tourists with the same brush too. There are many who truly value a jungle experience. So instead of shutting the door on all tourists, what is needed is to strip away luxury facilities in core areas. Imagine a Spartan accommodation — no air-coolers, no mineral water, no soft drink, nothing packed in plastic, no five-course meals at commercial canteens, even no electricity after a reasonable hour. With only a hard bed, a clean toilet and basic food on offer, the core will only attract those who really care for the forests and the picnic crowd will automatically move their party to the buffer.
Even so, till the buffers are developed as good wildlife habitats, core areas can also accommodate a limited number of day tourists on safari under strict regulations that include hefty penalties for littering and mischief.
To tackle the real danger of tourism, however, we have to rein in the mega walled resorts outside and around core forests. Without strict land use policies, restrictions on use of natural resources (water, wood, stone or sand), and strict pollution (sound, light and garbage) norms, such properties will continue to mushroom and suffocate our green isles. Unless made to share their profits with the locals, these businesses will further alienate the communities who anyway pay the highest price for conservation.
The Supreme Court will look into the eco-tourism guidelines at the next hearing on 22 August. While it may relax the interim ban, nothing far-reaching can be achieved without coming down ruthlessly on unscrupulous hoteliers circling our forests. With huge money at stake and major political interest at play, it will not be easy for any administration. But the apex court can at least summon the horse to the water.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist.