Tiger and tourism

Published : Dec 14, 2012 00:00 IST

Tigers and their majestic moods remain the star attraction in most national parks.-

Tigers and their majestic moods remain the star attraction in most national parks.-

The best solution to the problems relating to tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves will involve a balance between banning tourism there and allowing heavy tourism.

OSCAR WILDE famously said: One can only give an unbiased opinion about things that do not interest one, which is no doubt the reason an unbiased opinion is always valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question is a man who sees absolutely nothing. In spite of this quote, one hopes that the present situation of bafflement over whether tourism should be allowed in the core areas of tiger reserves in the country or how much should be allowed will head towards a more or less consensual and reasonable settlement. This, though a rather idealistic expectation, will ultimately help the stakeholders accept the final outcome with considerably less unhappiness and aggravation than might otherwise be the case and with a sense of humility to nature in all its manifestations. The three main considerations that govern the entire issue are the fragility of the core areas, ecotourism conducted as intense business, and avenues of livelihood for local communities.

There has been no long-term, systematic study in India of the pleasures and perils, so to say, of either banning tourism in the core areas or allowing a heavy influx of tourist vehicles into them. I am not using the phrase unsustainable tourism, which is flawed and faulty tourism and needs careful assessment and evaluation. Wildlife conservation has been practised in India for almost 50 years, and enough knowledge and experience have been gained so that neither of the two extreme positions of no-tourism and heavy tourism needs to be taken. Both have more negatives than positives. Here heavy tourism means the large number of tourist vehicles that are at present regarded as giving rise to unsustainable tourism.

If there is no-tourism, meaning a complete ban on the entry of vehicles into the core areas and tourism permitted only in the buffer areas, society and the core areas themselves will face consequences. One of the important objectives set by the framers of Project Tiger in 1973 was to create awareness of nature/wildlife conservation in the general public through tourism in national parks. No-tourism in the core areas would automatically shut a wonderful window to a fantastically wide range of carnivores, herbivores and birds in their natural environment. The biodiversity range, abundance of wildlife and quality of forest cover that the core areas are famous for may not be there in the buffer areas. Besides, small populations of some endangered animals can only be seen in the core areas because of their special food requirements and restricted movements. Great sightings of tigers and other wild animals and amazing forests, with different wildlife habitats and waterbodies, are what thrill, impress and inspire tourists. The entire ambiance of the magnificent wilderness is what inspires awe in tourists and what they cherish for the rest of their lives.

The core areas of the tiger reserves are wonderful wildlife habitats that support a wide range of floral and faunal species, some of them endemic and endangered. These ecotypical representative areas are, experts suggest, feeling the impact of successional and climatic changes in various ways. These changes range from the subtle to the apparent and are perceptible only to the trained eye. The appearance of unwanted and previously unrecorded plant species, the condition of a particular vegetal cover type, sightings of any unrecorded faunal or bird species and changes in habitat use by wildlife species are some of the important observations scientists, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts, including photographers, like to record when they go inside the core areas as tourists.

A good number of such tourists, both Indians and foreigners, who generally remain unidentified, visit the core areas every year. Their visits are vital as they sometimes document and inform tiger reserve managements about important observations, which help the latter take suitable action. The British are regarded as remarkable documenters, and their seminal documents and almanacs on the forests and wildlife of this country contributed enormously to initial conservation efforts in India. No-tourism in the core areas would deprive the country of good literature on nature conservation, which ultimately preserves natural history for posterity. The world at large would be disappointed as some of the excellent writing on the Indian wilderness in magazines, newspapers and books, which are appreciated all over the world, emanate from these core areas.

Those involved in wildlife conservation, especially park managements, have always sworn by the cooperation of local communities in the conservation of protected areas. These communities are credited with maintaining the well-being/ecological health of protected areas and their surroundings. In many tiger reserves, a large number of these communities have now been relocated outside protected areas. They have had to sacrifice the forest rights and concessions they had enjoyed for several generations. Villages surrounding protected areas have also met the same fate as protected areas are no longer managed forests where villagers can exercise their traditional rights. While the protected areas have become places of national and international renown, with a flourishing tourism industry, the local communities find themselves at a disadvantage. They feel that wildlife is being conserved at their expense and that rich people are availing themselves of the opportunities for making money.

Even a diehard optimist can foresee that a complete ban on tourism in the core areas, with its diversion to the buffer areas, is sure to cause a considerable drop in the number of tourists in the years to come. This situation may adversely affect the present occupations and incomes of local communities.

At the same time, heavy tourism in the core areas is equally detrimental. Only with common sense and empirical knowledge can wildlife managers assess the negative impacts of excessive tourism. Tiger-centric tourism in many tiger reserves has prevailed over the enjoyment of watching other wild animals and birds. This fixation results in the crowding of tourist vehicles along those roads where the chances of tiger sightings are high. Tourists always insist on getting special viewings of this magnificent species. If, sometimes, resident tigers become untraceable for a few days and tiger viewings are not conducted, the tiger reserve management has to face unhappy tour operators. As the guides and drivers of tourist vehicles have a good knowledge of the timings and movements of resident tigers, tourists do not mind waiting ad infinitum to see them. In spite of restrictions on organised tiger viewing from the backs of elephants, tiger reserve managements often find tourists unmanageable, which regularly results in unpleasant situations and controversies.

It has been observed that excessive tourism is also responsible for the somewhat aberrant behaviour of tigers in the tourism zone. It is generally accepted that non-stop viewing of a detained wild animal may cause changes in its behaviour, including reduced time spent on feeding or resting, and physiology, including increased levels of stress hormones. The resident tigers gradually lose the habit of avoiding humans if they are in close proximity to them on an almost daily basis ever since they were categorised as large cubs and were allowed to be seen by tourists. Tiger reserve managements, however, never regard tourists as a physical threat to wild animals, and no tourist has ever been found to be involved in any poaching case.

The growing economy and the rise in consumerism have led to a gradual increase in the number of tourists visiting protected areas. This has caused ecotourism to gradually lose its real spirit. Competition in tourism has resulted in those in the hospitality business offering tourists the best facilities, however out of place these may be in the tranquil landscape in the vicinity of a core area. Opulent accommodation with walled or fenced premises, dazzling lights and loud music runs counter to the ethics of ecotourism. This makes it difficult to manage the spillover wildlife population in adjacent buffer areas, and the concept of ecological corridors for the movement of tigers is made redundant in such landscapes. One must not think that the actions of those in the hospitality industry are a reprisal against tiger reserve managements, whose control and regulation of tourism is generally restricted only to the national parks. Both park managements and tour operators/lodge and resort owners are important stakeholders in ecotourism.

The protected areas are some of the finest ecotypical wilderness areas in the country and have virtually been turned into islands in the vast sea of humanity. Even within the protected areas, prime wildlife habitats are included in tourism zones. The protected areas are crucial for the country as far as nature conservation is concerned. Let us not fantasise about the wildlife conservation areas of African countries and imagine that kind of wildlife tourism can also happen in India. The socio-ecology and eco-demography of African countries are immensely different from those of India: Africa has spectacularly extensive wilderness areas with huge populations of a wide range of wild animals.

While the average area of the largest tiger reserves in India is only around 2,000 square kilometres, most national parks in Africa are mind-bogglingly large: to name just a few, Serengeti (15,000 sq km) and Ngorongoro (50,000 sq km), both in Tanzania; Kruger (20,000 sq km) in South Africa; Etosha (22,000 sq km) in Namibia; and Tsavo (12,000 sq km) in Kenya. Further, India supports a huge human populationthe main cause of the present panicky situationwith a much higher population density (around 383 inhabitants per sq km) than Namibia (3), Botswana (4), Zimbabwe (33), Kenya (71), Tanzania (51) and South Africa (42).

The best solution probably lies somewhere between no-tourism in the core areas and heavy tourism there. Light tourism should continue in the core areas with smaller tourism zones, and potential areas in the buffers should be developed to introduce new ecotourism activities and reduce the pressure on the core areas.

This is easier said than done. Each tiger reserve has to be evaluated dispassionately and a consensus reached regarding reduction in the present tourism zone and in the number of vehicles to be allowed. Developing the buffer zones for tourism to ensure that tourists get their moneys worth is going to be a real challenge. The buffer zones have for long harboured densely populated villages with multiple-use areas and all sorts of rampant anthropogenic activity at all hours. The fragmentation of forest areas and the biotic pressure have given these landscapes a patchy and unhealthy look. There are, however, chunks of good, forested areas close to the boundaries of the core areas. These areas can be slowly developed to facilitate jungle excursions for sighting spillover wildlife populations. The enjoyment of the entire spectrum of wildlife species, however, will not be possible. One can also think of removing museums, interpretation buildings, canteens, shops, and so on to the buffer areas, if they are at present located in the core areas. This step will add to the tranquillity of the core areas. The creation of excellent tiger safaris and state-of-the-art interpretation complexes and orientation centres in the buffer areas may satisfy tiger adorers and ensure almost daily sightings of tigers. Disappointed visitors from the core areas can take enormous comfort in this.

Besides, some more ecotourism activities, generally not allowed in the core areas, such as walking safaris, night drives, home stays, folk dances and cultural interactions can also be introduced in the buffer areas to attract tourists.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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