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Should we ban human beings from our forests?

A new front in the turf battle for protected areas has opened up with a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on tourism in tiger reserves.

In 2006, when the Wildlife Protection Act was amended, it allowed the establishment of Critical Tiger Habitats that were to be kept “inviolate”. Since the word means “not violated” and the law does not offer a definition, how do we interpret its meaning? Globally, India seems to be the only country to use this vague term.

The exclusionist-conservationists define it to mean totally free of human use, impacts and presence. However, inclusionist-conservationists infer “inviolate” to mean human presence can be allowed as long as their activities were not inimical to conservation. But they have only local people’s impacts on the forest in mind, not tourist infrastructure and its clients.

Indian forest guards and workers come out from a forest to board a boat at Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. Reuters

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying tourism was an illegal activity in Critical Tiger Habitats under the tenets of the Wildlife Act. In response, the tourism industry lists a range of benefits to wildlife conservation, from monitoring the shenanigans of the Forest Department officials and poachers to providing alternate livelihoods to local communities who would otherwise rip off the forests.

While local forest residents are being made to (forcibly, in many cases) pay the high cost of having to move life and baggage to make way for “inviolate” areas, allowing these very same places to continue to be recreational playgrounds for the urban, well-to-do is hypocrisy. During the debate on the Forest Rights Act, perhaps little suspecting this would come back to bite them later, several conservationist-tourism entrepreneurs argued for the need to keep parks “inviolate” of humans. This led the organization, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, to issue a statement on 25 March 2008 accusing a powerful group of people, who see themselves as “the rightful owners of India’s forests”, of lobbying for wildlife tourism as the appropriate use of forest lands. The organization declared, “This is not a fight over forest conservation. It is essentially a fight over power.”

At a press conference convened in early November 2011, the Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT), a non-profit organization of tourism professionals, introduced a Baiga tribal from Kanha to highlight the benefits his community reaps from tourism. Relocated from the park in 1973, he works for Rs 100 a day as a Forest Department labourer and supplements his income by dancing for tourists in resorts. The tour operators support his family’s eviction from the park because they claim the tribe’s presence in the forest 24 hours a day, seven days a week is detrimental to wildlife. Tourists stay for six to seven hours a day only and do not harm the forest or wildlife, they say. But, research in the US indicates wild animals like bobcats and coyotes are disturbed by even very low numbers of tourists on foot, bicycle and horses compared to similar forests where no recreation is allowed. It’s anybody’s guess what the impact of our mass tourism is on wild animals – it has never been studied.

Tourism is a conservation tool and banning it would be a disaster for wildlife conservation, said one conservationist-tourist operator. But this sector is not the paragon of conservation ethic as studies record from numerous parks worldwide. Tourism in some parks of Africa interfered with cheetahs’ behaviour. Instead of being active through the day, the animals restricted their activities to dawn and dusk, and avoided and/or delayed hunting until tourist vehicles went away. In Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia, barking deer, sambhar and Sumatran rhino moved away from tourist areas while tigers and sun bears changed their behaviour.

In many parks, wild animals become so used to people that they stop behaving normally. Hippos, crocs, and buffalo are said to have attacked tourists along the Zambesi River due to their familiarity with humans and/or irritation caused by their presence. Monkeys that become overly familiar with people, displayed increased aggression towards each other and humans.

Garbage disposal is a major problem in our resorts. Monkeys, wild pig, and sambhar have learnt to scavenge human-discarded food, and plastic bags have been found in elephant dung. Other tourism-caused stresses include transmitting diseases, interfering with parental care, increasing the vulnerability of some animals to predators, and the loss of animals in road accidents. When wild animals can be subjected to a range of such problems by an enterprise, can it be the appropriate inheritor of the “inviolate” space vacated by local people? Yet, no one doubts that tourism can be a conservation tool if controlled and regulated.

Similarly, the inclusionists say giving local residents a stake in forest management is a conservation tool. Yet why do tourism operators oppose the presence of people in the forests? Is it because they wish to provide their clients with the unique, untouched-by-humans wilderness experience? Are they willfully blind to the impacts of their own industry?

The tourism sector argues that wherever there are tourists, there are more tigers and where there are no tourists, there are fewer tigers. Is it not possible that the tiger numbers have increased due to other reasons? Isn’t it only normal tourists go where tiger sightings are guaranteed? Who is to say if tiger numbers may not increase even more if no tourists were around? If the rationale of the tour operators was true, surely we could move tourists wherever there are low tiger counts in an effort to increase their numbers. Why are they reluctant to shift their operations to the buffer zones, surrounding the inviolate areas? Because there are hardly any wild animals there. So why don’t they honestly own up that they are merely exploiting tigers?

They then proceed to lay the blame for all that ails wildlife tourism at the doors of the Forest Department, for failing to regulate the industry. While that is true, the Department is also a service provider in the grand tourism jamboree. Most park offices proudly display charts of visitation trends and revenue earned. In some reserves such as Bandavgarh, the authorities conduct ‘tiger shows’ where a group of tourist-carrying elephants corner a wild cat until everyone aboard has had a good look. In other places, the Department constructs water holes and check dams, and provides saltlicks to animals so tourists get better viewing opportunities. There are numerous Forest Department constructions such as the Dhikala tourist complex in Corbett Tiger Reserve which fall well within the demarcated Critical Tiger Habitat which haven’t been closed down in the last six years. Are these appropriate management actions to be taken in an “inviolate” area?

Just as wildlife tourism operators claim that the need of the hour is regulation and not an outright ban on their activities, so too is the case of the lives of local people. For instance, the Soligas living in the Biligirirangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve have shown themselves to be exemplary stewards of the forest. There may be several other such communities whose activities and impacts on the forests haven’t been assessed. According to the law, people can be moved from these critical habitats only after their impacts on the forest are determined. If these effects are reckoned to be “irreversible,” then they can voluntarily move out of the forest. Yet, the authorities and exclusionists are quick to jump to the conclusion that all the local residents harm the habitat and they are coerced and bullied to move.

In this scenario of uncontrolled tourism and inappropriate behaviour, there are tourism entrepreneurs who set new standards. Outside Corbett Tiger Reserve, which has one of the highest numbers of resorts cramming even wildlife corridors, is a socially and environmentally-conscientious tourist facility, Camp Forktail Creek, which was awarded the Outstanding PUG rating by TOFT.

Can we use the Soligas and Camp Forktail Creek as lodestars in setting up best practices for both forest residents and tourism operators? If we don’t, we run the risk of allowing the lowest common denominator in both groups to set the agenda.

More than tourism, at the heart of the issue is the concept of “inviolate”. Soon after the amendment to the Act was passed, entire core areas of tiger reserves were declared Critical Tiger Habitats without following due legal process. According to the ‘Guidelines for preparation of Tiger Conservation Plan’ issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, an “inviolate” area should be 800-1000 sq km large to support a minimum viable population of 80-100 tigers. Several of the Critical Tiger Habitats fail to make this grade which makes one wonder how relevant they are for tiger conservation. This also highlights the fact that “scientific and objective criteria” were not followed in declaring these “inviolate” areas as stipulated by the Wildlife Protection Act and they are thus illegal.

When the process of establishing these critical habitats is contentious, and when the meaning of “inviolate” covers the spectrum from no human presence at all to condoning low impact activities, how are these areas to be managed? Either it means no humans at all or it regulates tourism and offers a greater share from its revenues to forest residents. A locally funded eco-development project could go a long way in reducing the local communities’ usage of forest resources.

Both the tourism sector and the Forest Department claim that they alone have the best interests of conservation at heart. The question then arises, from whom should these forests be kept “inviolate”?

The law should apply equally to everyone. If it does not, as the Campaign for Survival and Dignity says, “This is not a fight over forest conservation. It is essentially a fight over power.”

(with inputs from Ravi Chellam)

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