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Let’s stick to the law for once

While people should be allowed to enjoy our natural heritage, tiger tourism in the core areas of reserves must be stopped, writes Ajay Dubey.

india Updated: Oct 25, 2012 21:15 IST
Ajay Dubey

Till 2011, Madhya Pradesh was known as the tiger state of India, and not without reason: in 2000, it had 700 tigers. What is the number now? According to the last tiger census of 2011, there are only 257 left. If you ask me the reason behind this drastic decline in their numbers, it is this: mindless tourism in critical tiger habitats.

I filed the case against tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves because India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 clearly states that critical habitats must be inviolate. The murder of a tigress, Jhurjhura, in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 2010 by tourists is an example of irresponsible tourism.

Since the matter is sub-judice, it is not advisable for me to say anything further on the case. However, I reiterate that no citizen must be denied the opportunity to enjoy our natural heritage but tourism must be restricted to the buffer zones of the forests. Such zones should be developed assiduously because the forest area is shrinking.

According to newly proposed tourism policy of the Centre, villagers who stay inside India’s tiger reserves will get a part of the profit that accrues from tourism. But if you ask me, such commercialism will only endanger the animals.

I am going to challenge these new guidelines because, as I have stated earlier, I believe that the law does not permit tourism in the core areas. My point is that ethical tourism is important for the conservation of tigers. It is important to mention that after the court’s order, states have notified the buffer and core zones of tiger reserves, a legal requirement under the law.

My petition was focused on the issue of stopping irresponsible tourism and bringing tourism under certain rules and regulations. I, along with other members of Prayatna, an environmental action group based in Bhopal, brought to the notice of the court that the government of Madhya Pradesh was yet to notify the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR), which prompted the Supreme Court to pass the order that states must notify the buffer zones.

Despite the CM’s protest, the MP government finally notified the buffer zone of the PTR in August this year. It was possible only due to court’s intervention in the issue. It was obvious that the CM was under pressure from the mining mafia and that is why the notification of buffer zone of the PTR was delayed. I would also like to mention that an enquiry committee, which was constituted by the government to probe the decimation of tigers in the PTR, had also said that ‘no notification’ of the buffer zone was one of the reasons behind the death of tigers.

The supporters of tiger tourism say that a genuine partnership between the local people and tourism industry will benefit the former economically and keep poachers at bay. But in the last 30 years of tourism in India’s tiger reserves, how many tribals have emerged as owners of resorts? Not a single one. Tourism has proved beneficial only to the landed class, which has nothing to do with tiger conservation. In Sariska and the PTR, tigers vanished in front of forest officials and tourism operators. Thanks to RTI, Prayatna could obtain a confidential report written by the director of the PTR that revealed the nexus between the forest officials and poachers.

Moreover, in 2003, the MP government commissioned a study to determine how many tourists can enter its tiger reserves per day. The report mentioned that there has been excessive tourism in the reserves. The report made detailed recommendations, but none has been implemented because the government thinks that tourism protects tigers and provides employment to locals.

To save its tigers and other animals, India must follow the guidelines laid down by South African safari pioneer Colin Bell, who said: “The best model for wilderness is no visitors at all” and, “if they must come, then it’s better to have high price and low numbers”.

Ajay Dubey is secretary, Prayatna, an environmental action group
The views expressed by the author are personal