The phalanx of resorts on the eastern boundary of the park interrupts the once continuous corridor used by elephants, tigers and other wild animals. Many produce enormous quantities of waste, others are noisy, some encourage all manner of entertainment that has nothing to do with wildlife. No one has audited their impact, but like a rash, new lodges keep coming. Perhaps, only Public Interest Litigations will stop them. The parks management is also under constant pressure from the tourism lobby, which is not beyond using political connections to bend rules or harass honest officials." - Nirmal Ghosh, The Corbett Inheritance
Conservation stories seldom have happy endings these days. There are no victories… reprieves at best. But occasionally the pen does steer things the right way. This is one such instance.
February 2, 2009, Corbett: ‘Man-eating tiger captured, taken to the Nainital zoo. It was this cryptic ticker running across a television news channel that spurred me to go to Corbett, one of our finest reserves, with one of the highest tiger densities in the world. Not surprisingly, the real story beyond the headlines was a murky tale of tourism gone horribly wrong.
The tiger in question, a young male in his prime, had killed - but not eaten - a woman who had entered the forest to cut grass. Nevertheless, the tiger was branded a man-eater. I sensed the story ran deeper and there were more issues at play here.
As expected, young tigers get pushed to the periphery when searching for areas to establish their own territories. The cat I write about, had marked out Garjia near Dhikuli as his domain and had to contend with resort after resort blocking the game trail leading to the Kosi river (see map).
Soon enough this tiger became a magnet for guests day and night. Reports of private elephant safaris began doing the rounds, together with rumours that cat-obsessed tourists had begun baiting the cat with meat.
It was almost too fantastic to believe, but then I saw the video that revealed the tiger, an extraordinarily large male, tamely following an elephant like a dog waiting to be fed. Reliable sources confirmed to me that this baiting was done by one or two of the less scrupulous resorts and that they charged an arm and a leg from their customers for a ‘guaranteed tiger sighting.
I thought I was being discreet, but obviously not discreet enough. Within a day of landing up in Corbett, veiled threats were delivered to me to “not poke around too much." Earlier, one of my sources had been assaulted when he tried to investigate deeper.
So what is wrong with such baiting? Put simply, the process was conditioning the tiger to come perilously close to human habitation and lose all fear of humans.
There was little I could really do. I was surprised that virtually everyone in Corbett seemed to know about this, but were disinterested in pursuing it further. I reported this in The Pioneer on April 8, 2009. My story Wayward Tourists Hit the Heart of Tiger Country highlighted several issues that plagued this famous park including the two top concerns - increasing laxity in protection and mismanaged tourism.
Soon after the piece was published, a committee was set up by the Ministry of Tourism at the instance of Sujit Bannerjee, Secretary, Tourism. After a series of meetings, a survey of resorts was conducted by the students of the Institute of Hotel Management, PUSA, while I (with inputs from some WWF officials and young Aditya Panda, Sanctuary Young Naturalist award winner, 2008), focussed on the impact of unrestrained and mismanaged tourism on wildlife, particularly tigers and elephants.
The report revealed that over 75 resorts had sprung up all along the Kosi river in recent years, effectively blocking the crucial Corbett-Ramnagar Forest Division corridor that is bissected by the river. There were not-so-discreet whispers about resorts throwing meat to lure carnivores, night safaris were routine mainly in Sitabani, the reserve forest on the other side of the Kosi and organised for anyone willing to pay. On top of all this, heaven help us, rain dances, discotheque nights and parties were part of the ‘attractions offered. New tourism hotspots were also forming along other crucial corridors such as Belpadao-Kotabagh. In Jamoon, which was once a ‘tiger nursery bushes and scrub forest had been cleared to run bikes. The report (available at www.incredibleindia.org/newsite/pdf/corbett_tourism_report.pdf) concluded that tourism in the Corbett Tiger Reserve had become unsustainable and was harming wildlife.
This is the report that whipped up the storm later when Dr. Rajesh Gopal of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) said quite correctly that: “We should not forget that tiger reserves are primarily for conserving the endangered tiger and tourism is just a secondary outcome. Our reserves are small and prone to disturbance caused by tourism. They cannot compete with large African savanna parks, which can stand large number of tourists."
GETTING TOURISM RIGHT
The NTCA also wrote to the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand on February 22, 2010 recommending that the Corbett Tiger Reserve buffer be notified without delay to arrest further damage.
The Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh also wrote to the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal saying “core areas are primarily meant for fostering a viable population of tigers and tourism should be low profile ventures involving host communities." He also emphasised that the notification of the buffer be expedited and to incorporate portions of Ramnagar, Lansdowne and the West Terai division in the same. He also advised that the entire buffer area be declared an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act.
Without a shadow of doubt, it was the pressure from the centre and the media, that forced Uttarakhand, which had thus far shown little concern for the crucial buffer and corridors, to notify the buffer (even though it has still stubbornly left out the above mentioned forest divisions). The state also organised a day-long meeting under the chairmanship of the Chief Secretary and a ‘high-level committee has now been appointed to issue guidelines for tourism in eco-fragile zones, including high altitude areas where similar problems exist. An assessment is underway to evaluate the condition of wildlife corridors across the state together with their possible restoration.
After he was briefed on the issue at the National Board for Wildlife Meeting on March 18, the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh lent his offices weight to the issue. In a letter to the Chief Minister, Uttarakhand, he cautioned him about “unplanned and undeveloped tourism within the Corbett landscape," and asked the state to “regulate tourism related commercial activities in the area besides declaring the surrounds of Corbett as ecologically sensitive under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986." He asked for a balance between “mainstream tiger concerns and ecologically sustainable livelihood options for local people."
Though a step in the right direction, it does fall far short of what is actually required, particularly for Corbett. Steps to address the various issues in the sprawling Dhikala complex and also disturbances to the core critical tiger habitat must be taken immediately. But if this one tiny step forward can be magnified, to include resorts and other unplanned, unbridled construction activities that are literally choking vital corridors in Kanha, Pench, Kaziranga and the Nagarahole-Bandipur-Mudumalai landscape in the Western Ghats to name a few, then something might have been achieved. It must also be remembered that places not encroached upon by resorts are either already blocked by agriculture, human habitation and industries or are just too steep for animals to use. Tourism may not be the only activity blocking corridors, but it has compounded the problem immensely.
In an ideal world, tourism is the best way to win support for wildlife conservation as it helps build local economies and in the process, creates powerful allies among the community. Success stories of community driven protection initiatives can be seen across the country. In Manas (Assam), for example, ex-poachers are fierce protectors of the park under the aegis of the Maozogendri Eastern Manas Eco-Tourism Society. In Arunachals Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, researchers and serious tourists pay an amount to the local tribal council for conducting research in the forest, and for accommodation and field assistance drawn from the reserves indigenous tribes. But like most activities, tourism remains a double-edged sword, and in most ‘star parks, the tiger is a cash cow and tourism is a big business killing the very ‘product it markets.
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By Prerna Singh Bindra
First published in Sanctuary Asia Vol XXX No. 3, June 2010