Save tigers not tourism
India’s tiger tourism has not benefited the big cat nor the people living in over 600 protected areas in the country.
There have been studies which indicate that human presence disturb wildlife including tigers especially with relation to breeding. These studies, however, fail to specify whether tourism or those living in protected areas disturb the animals.
It is a gray area which needs further investigation. More so, in light of a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court by Ajay Dubey seeking shifting of tourism from core critical tiger habitats to buffer and fringe areas, a view endorsed by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
The tour operators and lodge owners in wildlife areas have strongly opposed the move claiming that it will do more harm than good the tigers and people living in and around these protected areas.
The tour operators argument sound strange to me as they fail to present any evidence of how tourism has benefited tiger conservation and improved livelihood of the locals. Presenting a tribal from Kanha in Madhya Pradesh to showcase tourism has empowered locals is be-fooling. There is no data to show that they have directly shared revenue with any agency for benefit of tigers or locals.
Tour operators pay a ticket charge to enter tiger reserves but the money is charged from tourists. The tourism related revenue generated by the government is mostly used to pay salaries of forest employees, an indirect tiger conservation measure.
Tourism benefit to locals is minimal. Only a few locals living inside or around tiger reserves have been employed by lodge owners or drive vehicles ferrying tourists into the reserves. A vast majority still live in abject poverty even though tigers bring maximum earning for the government and lodge owners through tourism.
Per se, tourism is not bad.
But, the problem is how it is run in and around tiger reserves. Totally, unregulated and at the whims and fancies of foresters and owners of big lodges. There have been ample cases of forest officials increasing the number of permits to allow tourist vehicles inside reserves. Tigers have been allowed to film even when reserve had been officially closed.
I have seen this happen during my visits to tiger reserves in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh whereas local villagers were treated like theives by forest employees for collecting their basic necessity firewood. Reason, they don’t have money power like wildlife tour operators. It is also evident that government has failed to take action on lodges built in buffer zone of tiger reserves, a prohibited activity under law.
The public interest litigation is an opportunity for the government to enforce some regulation ensuring that revenue generated from tourism helps in tiger conservation and upliftment of poor in over 6,000 villages inside tiger reserves.
The environment ministry needs to quickly notify the eco-tourism rules, which makes sharing of 30 % of revenue generated through tourism with locals mandatory. For the record, a committee headed by former tourism secretary of India Sujit Banerjee had made this recommendation. If required, implementing these rules should be linked with providing Central government funds for wildlife conservation.
I know that tourism guys near tiger reserves are vehemently opposed to the idea and Vishal SIngh of Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) is willing to offer peanuts — maximum of five percent.
But, time has come to make them realise their responsibility towards the big cat, which brings high profile tourists willing to pay up to Rs 40,000 for a night, and locals, who have co-existed with these tigers for centuries.
For this, if tourism has to be banned for some time from scientifically defined core critical tiger habitats, it will not be a bad idea. It may be the way for the first pay back from the tourism.