A roaring blunder
On August 29, the Supreme Court gave the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) four weeks to clear up the 'tiger tourism' controversy. Here are some facts on the issue.
'Project Tiger' was established on April 1, 1973, to protect our national animal. Its title was later changed to 'National Tiger Conservation Authority' (NTCA). Under the MoEF, tiger reserves were then put under the category of protected areas of national parks and sanctuaries. To administer these areas efficiently, forest departments created concentric zones of protection. Only forest officials could enter the 'core'; the 'buffer zone' was an encircling shield; the 'tourist zone' was for visitors and the 'outer zone' bordered the area beyond the control of forest departments.
For 33 years this system worked without a hitch except poachers often succeeding in penetrating the core because forest departments didn't have resources to counter these sophisticated marauders. However, the entry fee that forest departments levied on visitors went a long way towards protecting tigers. In 2011-12, Karnataka earned almost Rs 5 crore from its five tiger sanctuaries, which are open to tourists for 12 months. Their estimated tiger population has risen from 290 in 2008 to 300 in 2010.
But in 2006, the MoEF arbitrarily amended The India Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and enlarged the core area by defining it as: "Core or critical tiger habitat areas of national parks and sanctuaries, where it has been established, on the basis of scientific and objective criteria, that such areas are required to be kept inviolate for the purposes of tiger conservation, without affecting the rights of the Scheduled Tribes or such other forest dwellers, and notified as such by the state government in consultation with an expert committee constituted for the purpose…"
It also gave itself the power to curtail such rights by adding: "Unless... the activities of the Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers or the impact of their presence is sufficient to cause irreversible damage and shall threaten the existence of tigers and their habitat ..."
For some years that masterful piece of obfuscation lay dormant. Most states didn't identify critical tiger habitats. Then the ministry learned that the Forest Rights Act was about to be legislated. There was the danger that their verbal smokescreen might be blown away. Hurriedly, scientific and objective criteria were assessed. An expert committee was constituted, which met, deliberated and the State issued the appropriate notification. This was done in less than three months with the apparent objective of excluding the beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act.
But it had another unexpected effect. When the Supreme Court pulled up the MoEF on tourists' entry in 'inviolate' areas, our bureaucrats shamefacedly wanted to change their stand — a request which the court rightly rejected. The court has now directed the MoEF to frame clear guidelines for the protection of tiger habitats. The MoEF can start by admitting that tourists don't kill tigers, poachers do; tourist activities don't deter tiger breeding and tigresses with cubs have been seen wandering unperturbed around tourist zones; private vehicles carrying visitors must not be allowed to drive around the sanctuaries regardless of the status of its passengers, only forest department vehicles with a forest guard in each vehicle may enter such areas; the carrying capacity of tiger habitats must be assessed periodically and tourism activities should be restricted to these limits; new core, buffer, tourist and outer zones must be established by an independent organisation like the Bombay Natural History Society; a tiger census, financed by the MoEF, must be carried out by a reputed and independent organisation like the Wildlife Trust of India and submitted to the Supreme Court; both the estimate of the carrying capacity and the census must be done every five years.
The Supreme Court may have softened its earlier decision of a blanket ban on tiger tourism. But the proposal of a ban is a result of the MoEF's hasty actions. It's not based on due application of mind, the Rwanda experience — which succeeded in protecting mountain gorillas — or even the reputed findings of the Wildlife Institute of India. The MoEF has a deadline till September 25 to rectify its far-reaching error. Let's hope it won't disappoint us.
Hugh and Colleen Gantzer are travel writers and environmentalists
The views expressed by the authors are personal