The Supreme Court today banned tourism in the core areas of India’s tiger reserves till further orders, fuelling fears among tour operators and some conservationists that people would lose the chance to watch the animals in the wild, local economies would bleed and poaching would increase.
The court, responding to a petition by a non-government environment organisation, acknowledged concerns expressed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority that tourism may be pushing tigers towards extinction.
“Why should tourism be allowed in core areas (of tiger reserves)? Tigers are practically on the verge of extinction, whatever be the statistics,” a two-judge bench of Justices Swatanter Kumar and F.M.I. Kalifulla said.
This is an interim order until the court rules on the guidelines submitted by the authority. The ban has been prompted by foot-dragging by states on an earlier court order to notify buffer zones (a 10-km stretch around the core area) where tourism is expected to be permitted.
The tiger conservation authority has claimed that the trend the world over is towards banning all tourism-related activities in the core areas. Such areas are defined as zones necessary for tiger conservation without affecting the rights of forest-dwellers.
“Tourism causes disturbance in an inviolate area. Therefore, like all biotic disturbance, the core areas have to be free from tourism. Keeping this in mind, guidelines have been issued by Project Tiger to phase out tourism from core areas to buffer areas in tiger reserves,” the authority said in a note to the court.
The court order has evoked sharp responses from sections of wildlife tour operators and conservation enthusiasts who have warned that banning tourism will over time hurt tigers rather than protect them.
Tour operators also say tens of thousands of members of local communities around tiger zones depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
“Tourism is the only industry that can co-exist with conservation,” said Goverdhan Rathore, an owner of a lodge in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore. “Nearly 25,000 people around Ranthambore depend on tourism alone – there’ll be large scale destitution in this area.”
Conservationists estimate that up to 150,000 tourists visit the Ramthambore park each year, contributing to its business revenue of Rs 60 crore. “The entire livelihood of local people depends on tourism,” said Dharmendra Kandal, a conservationist at Ranthambore.
Tour operators around the Jim Corbett Park estimate that nearly half the 90-odd hotels outside the park would shut down and hundreds of safari operators and nature guides would lose jobs if the interim order becomes the final one.
“Tourism brings eyes and ears on the ground – it’s crucial for accountability,” said Julian Matthews, the chairperson of the Travel Operators for Tigers India, a not-for-profit wildlife association that has been campaigning for sustainable nature tourism.
India’s tiger census figures last year estimate 1,706 tigers scattered across 39 tiger reserves across the country. Wildlife scientists believe tigers are well-protected within the core areas.
In almost every tiger reserve, tourism is currently allowed in a small segment of the core area. “This order puts an end to any commercial activity, including tourism, even in those areas,” said a wildlife conservationist.
Wildlife biologists have cautiously welcomed the court’s order, saying there are problems with the tourism model that has evolved in India in recent years. But even they are uncomfortable about a complete ban on viewing tigers in parts of the core areas.
“We need people to be watching our tigers in their natural habitats, but it should not be only the rich,” said Ulhas Karanth, a Bangalore-based tiger expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society, India Programme.
While the court order seems to suggest that tourism could continue in buffer zones around the core areas, both tour operators and conservation scientists point out that buffer zones have virtually no wildlife. “Buffer zones often comprise private land, much of it farmland, and the only animals to be seen there are cattle, dogs and cats,” said one lodge operator near the Bandhavgarh reserve.
“Some 30,000 members of the local community are likely to lose their jobs around Kanha and Bandhavgarh,” said Amit Sankhala, an operator of lodges at the two tiger reserves. Tour operators predict that unemployment will push locals into poaching.
But the authority has said there is no correlation between tiger abundance and tourism. “It is a myth that tourism ensures tiger protection — on the contrary, areas like Sariska and Panna have lost their tigers despite tourist visitation,” the authority said in its report to the court.
Citing simulation studies done by the authority and the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, the note said a viable population of 20 breeding tigresses requires an inviolate area of around 800 to 1200sqkm.
“Further, an ecologically sensitive zone (buffer zone, co-existence area, multiple area) of around 1,000 to 3,000sqkm is also required around the inviolate core area for sustaining dispersing tigers, surplus prime tigers and old displaced tigers,” it said.
There are 13 tiger range countries, including India. Of them, India has the maximum number of tigers in the world. “However, the concept of core zone, buffer zone is not new,” it said, plugging the concept of an “exclusive” tiger agenda for the core and “inclusive” people-friendly agenda for the buffer areas.
That would require state governments to first identify the core area and the buffer areas under them. As the first step towards eco-tourism, the top court today said that all states must notify these areas.
The court rapped the states of Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu for not filing affidavits of compliance with an earlier court order of April 12, 2012, asking states to notify these areas.
The bench slapped costs of Rs 10,000 each on these states except Jharkhand and Arunachal for failing to do so by July 10, 2012, and gave them a last opportunity to file affidavits of compliance within three weeks.
If these affidavits are not filed, they would incur contempt of court and also be slapped with costs of Rs 50,000 to be paid by the secretary concerned, the bench warned.
The authority’s guidelines propose a ban on any new tourist facilities on forestland. It suggests that permanent facilities located inside of the core tiger wildlife habitat should be phased out within five years.
Karanth said the authority’s proposals, if accepted, would phase out all infrastructure — such as buildings and habitations — from the core areas and reserve a small portion, perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of the areas, exclusively for strictly regulated viewing.
“The debate on wildllife tourism has less to do with conservation and more and more to do with issues of equity,” said M.D. Madhusudan, a wildlife biologist and director of the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore.
“There are concerns that whatever is trickling down to the local communities through eco-tourism is just not worthwhile to pursue this model of tourism,” Madhusudan said. “It’s tragic —people living on the boundary of the reserves are unable to experience the wildlife within in a recreational sense because the costs of wildlife tourism have shot up.”
He cited the example of short rides in Karnataka’s Bandipur sanctuary, the cost of which has ballooned from Rs 30 a person two years ago to Rs 300 now.