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Protecting Wildlife

Banning wildlife tourism in India is not the solution

Hector Dsouza, eTN  Dec 07, 2010

INDIA (eTN) - Resort owners and tour operators in wildlife reserves are up against a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filed in the Jabalpur High Court seeking to ban tourists and visitors from entering the core areas of forest reserves. The respondents to the PIL are National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Madhya Pradesh forest department. Since resort owners and tour operators are going to be directly affected, they too will have a say in the response. Are we going to be so doomsday or will we be given a realistic opportunity of making a new beginning? The case comes for a hearing on December 6, 2010

The problems of dwindling natural reserves inside the forest are being attributed to the disturbances tourists and visitors create inside the core areas while on a jeep/elephant safari. Simple rules of maintaining proper distances between vehicles and between a tiger (when sighted) are not being followed, thereby creating an unhealthy environment. It is also mentioned that a large number of resorts in and around the buffer area are more of a hindrance, often consuming scarce resources, blocking migratory paths, and disrupting local cultures. There is also the issue of garbage disposal, pollution caused by safari vehicles, and too much emphasis and attention on spotting the tiger, thereby neglecting the hidden beauties of our spectacular reserves.

A report published on the Corbett National Park, for instance, shows that though there are only 600 visitors allowed inside the park each day, there is accommodation for 3,000 visitors in the immediate surrounding areas, which is a cause for concern. The number of resorts coming up at Kisli Gate in the Kanha Reserve has almost tripled over the past decade. Which leads us to an extremely important question as to why are carrying capacities of parks not determined, leading to a more scientific and systematic approach in regulating the number of visitors inside these reserves? It seems the forest department does not regulate the mushrooming of resorts in these fragile areas. Or is it that the permissions are granted by other local authorities, thereby downsizing the role of forest department and other regulatory bodies?

One system suggested for determining carrying capacity is ensuring there are sufficient rooms for tourists on two safaris during the day. Effectively, this suggests if 800 persons are allowed entry inside the park during the morning and afternoon safari, there must be 800 single rooms or 400 double rooms available. Day visitors would add up to another ten percent. With resorts operating at 90 percent capacity, day visitors are absorbed into the figure. Provision is made by local authorities for forty resorts with adequate facilities for waste and sewage disposal, as well as alternate forms of power supply. Park authorities can arrive at a sensible solution by factoring in nature and topography of the park, amicable coexistence of local villages and visitors, and adequate space for flora and fauna to arrive at a final figure.

Leave aside resorts, just parallel to the Corbett reserve is the national highway where there are no speed limits and vehicles zip by at uncontrollable speeds, twenty-four hours a day. This dangerous stretch is from Ramnagar in the south to Mohan Gate in the north. Isn’t this a threat as well, as predators are known to cross the road and the stretch is inside the buffer area? There are problems in the northeast elephant reserves, as well as where trains mow down elephants in utter disregard of safety and speed norms.

Banning the entry of tourists inside reserves is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, far-reaching practical solutions must be found in the forest reserves in such a manner that both reserves, as well as tourists, benefit. For starters, an urgent study for determining carrying capacity of parks should begin and results declared within a timeframe of three to six months. We must also end our obsession with trying to spot a tiger at all costs and ignoring other finer aspects of the reserves. The challenge here lies in finding locals and naturalists who are able to effectively communicate with visitors out on a safari. There is a dearth of effective communicators, quite often this becomes the bone of contention for a visitor. Training definitely helps, often good naturalists are catalysts who succeed in offering visitors an enriching experience and gently luring them away from tiger, leopard, and elephant spotting exercises.

Forest wardens in some parks, like Kanha for instance, are effective in preventing crowding of jeeps when a tiger is spotted and known to suspend licenses of jeep owners for a number of days when an incident is reported by forest guards. It has happened on quite a few occasions in my presence, this move augurs well in preserving the sanctity of the forest and deterring visitors and drivers from violating norms and regulations.

In the modern age we currently live in, its possible forest guards are provided with simple cameras which are used, when for example a tiger or a rare species is spotted, thereby keeping all on guard, about whether all norms of the forest department were followed. This acts as a deterrent and will ensure overcrowding doesn’t happen, paths are kept open, and animals left with their open space. The day's events can then be downloaded on a computer at the control room, which will analyze the recorded events of the day. There is the challenge of recharging cameras and uninterrupted power supply. We’ve all heard of solar systems, haven’t we? There will be hiccups, yet it’s worth trying.

The benefits from tourism must permeate to locals, quite rightly menial jobs do not make a substantial change. The process of development of villages in forest areas should rest jointly with the beneficiaries from the reserves, which include tour operators, resort owners, and other service providers. It has been observed that many traditions and cultures are preserved because of tourism. It needs a joint and concerted effort where sacrifices need to be made for locals in order to uplift them and preserve the sanctity of the magnificent forests.

Finally tourists and visitors need to be sensitized about the importance of forests; it’s always a good idea to have information sessions, which must be mandatory at all dwelling places before visiting the core areas. Information needs to be disseminated in a proper manner, statistics displayed, and invitations extended to become partners in conservation and preservation. This would naturally mean having more trained persons and naturalists within resorts and lodges. While some have this facility, many need to start. This is also a wonderful employment opportunity.

To conclude, we need more pragmatism from both sides, negating wildlife tourism will spell "finis" to the hopes of all wildlife lovers who visit parks and forests in the form of tourists keen on spotting a rare species in natural surroundings. On the other hand, wildlife tourism must be allowed with riders that ensure human greed does not get the better of these spectacular reserves. Introspection and regulation need to walk side by side. With some disciplining, we’ll get there.

Banning wildlife tourism in India is not the solution
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