A nearly four-month ban on tiger tourism in more than 30,000 sq km of tiger landscape led to much concern both in the government and the tourism industry. Tiger activists were worried that poachers would have a field day after the ban and in some places in south India, they must have. The process led to huge cancellations of bookings and financial losses for both the tourism industry and those governments that runs lodges in the tiger territories.
Innovative tourism can save tigers but our fledgling — but immature — tourism industry would have to organise itself into a strong and effective force to do so. They must share some of their profits with local people and the wildlife. Those in the industry must learn from the examples from Africa where genuine partnership between the industry and locals has led to enormous differences in places like Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Masai Mara in Kenya, the Gorillas in Rwanda and dozens of others. No one can dream of banning tourism there as the industry is a strong force: well informed with strong connections with the locals. It also contributes huge amounts to the local and national economy. India is still to understand such vital priorities and start this process.
However, this can happen only when the mindset of people in the forest department changes. They are key players responsible for making tourism rules and enforcing those rules. On both counts, they have failed miserably. The rules they make are poor and unimaginative and the enforcement is so weak that many get away with doing nothing.
In tourist areas, the department spends most of its energies on VIP tourism but the forest department has to keep away from the horrors of such tourism. This has damaged the reputation of this department and has created a new form of unregulated tourism for bureaucrats and politicians. Instead of benefitting forest officers, as they thought it would, such tourism has turned counter-productive and probably is the cause of the original ban on tiger tourism and the chaos in our tiger parks.
Instead of being a control freak, the forest department has to retreat from exercising absolute power and create genuine relationships with the tourism trade and locals so that innovative rules that benefit wildlife, the visitor, the locals, and the tourism industry can be created. It happens all over the world. So what on earth is stopping us?
The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the ministry of environment and forests should get their act together and learn from this ban that tourism does not kill tigers but poachers do. When providing affidavits to the apex court on the problems tigers face, they need to admit the negligence and responsibility of governments in the extinction of tigers in Sariska and Panna and the drastic declines in Ranthambhore, Palamu, Valmiki, Buxa, Indravati and so many other tiger reserves and all of which had nothing to do with tourism.
The future lies in creating new partnerships and models of governance based on trust and faith among all players. There has to be a collective approach and when that happens, we can learn a lesson or two from the Supreme Court rulings. Not only has it been a wake-up call for everyone but it should also result in serious introspection by states so that they can find a way forward on how to manage their forests.
I believe Africa is a good learning ground where instead of being relegated to defunct committees, most individuals with talent and interest are busy working in the field. The governments encourage that vision unlike what we do in India. India requires much reform in this sector but the first priority has to be an attitudinal change in the thinking and mindset of the government and the people who serve it.
Valmik Thapar has worked for 37 years with wild tigers and has written 24 books on tigers
The views expressed by the author are personal