As wildlife enthusiasts gear up to celebrate the 137th birthday of legendary hunter-turned wildlife conservationist Jim Corbett on July 25, the question remains whether Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR), named after Jim Corbett, is fulfilling its basic mandate of wildlife conservation and protecting big cats, or whether it has turned into a money minting venture.
As per CTR records, nearly 2.1 million tourists visited the reserve till March this year. The CTR remains open to visitors from November 15 to June 15. During this season, the reserve earned Rs 70 million in lieu of permit and rest house fees.
The reserve is sprawled in an area over 1,200 square kilometres around Nainital and Pauri Garhwal districts. The depleting number of tigers had prompted the union government to launch the ambitious 'Project Tiger' in 1973 in Corbett National Park.
In the past 39 years, Project Tiger seems to have worked as CTR boasts a healthy population of big cats. According to the tiger census conducted in 2009 by Wildlife Institute in India, 102 tigers were sighted in CTR and 164 in the entire 'Corbett landscape'.
"The ongoing census figures suggest that tiger population is further increasing as 176-180 big cats were sighted at CTR and 240 tigers sighted in the Corbett landscape," said director CTR, RK Mishra.
Even as the tiger population increases in and around CTR, tourism activity has also witnessed a surge around Ramnagar.
In the last one decade, CTR has rapidly transformed into a multi-million 'venture' with the realty investors pumping money to encash the mad rush of tourists, who are in return ready to shelve money to get a glimpse of the big cat, which has apparently become a saleable brand.
Villages like Dhikuli, Mohan, Bailparao and Marchula, nestled on the other side of the CTR, are the new addresses for tourists visiting Corbett.
Over the years, resorts have mushroomed in these villages, which promise every amenity to tourists with deep pockets. Bars, swimming pools, safari rides, discotheques and conference halls are some of the facilities most resorts promise.
"CTR also boasts more than 450 species of birds, hundreds of Asiatic elephants, a number of other wild animals and reptiles but it is the tiger which is the focus of visitors and business community as well," says Anup Sah, a Nainital-based wildlife photographer and also member of the Uttarakhand Wildlife Board.
Interestingly, almost every resort has tastefully mounted tiger pictures inside and has printed lots of tiger pictures in its publicity material. Some of the resorts are also running NGOs to conserve wildlife and big cats.
As per state tourism department sources, 40 resorts in and around CTR are registered with the department. However, at least another 35 other 'tourist houses' are operating close to CTR, though not formally registered.
Nevertheless, the uncontrolled tourism activity around CTR is worrying officials. There is only a single national highway connecting Ramnagar with Ranikhet, which doubles up as a boundary between resorts and the CTR.
Under construction structures and construction material lying on the roadside towards Dhikala range of CTR, the core zone, clearly suggests more resorts are coming up. It is not just hoteliers and realtors who are investing, some eminent politicians are also joining the league.
Anupam Sharma, one of the first hoteliers to open Tiger Camp resort at Dhikuli in the early 90s, believes that the tourism industry needs regulation. "Earlier, the concept was to promote environment-friendly jungle safaris that meant no noise, no dance, no boozing but over the years this concept has nearly gone. Now making profits is the only aim of many owners, he says.
At Dhikuli, just below the road where resorts are located, flows the Kosi river, a crucial corridor for the tigers. Wildlife activists complain mushrooming resorts have completed blocked the Kosi wildlife corridor.
"Animals can't come anymore towards the river since resorts have completely blocked this important corridor," said Brijendra Singh, member, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Singh, also an honorary wildlife warden of CTR, adds "There is a strong need for tourism management. Efforts should also be made to evolve a system where state exchequer gets monetary benefit from the tourism inflow."
Agrees Mishra, "Corbett has the potential to attract upto 2.6 million tourists annually but our aim is not to increase numbers since usually 60% visitors are less bothered about wildlife". The director CTR shares that imposing levy on resorts and hotels minting money in name of Corbett "could be a solution to regulate tourism".
A study conducted by Prerna Singh Bindra for union tourism ministry has also indicated that "the kind of tourism practiced is not in sync with conservation objectives in a critical tiger habitat of CTR".
(This story is part of CSE fellowship - Backs to the wall: Tigers, tiger habitats and conservation)