Lest ‘inviolate’ become ‘empty’

A new dimension has been added to the tiger versus tribal debate – tourism. The past weeks have seen fierce arguments within the wildlife fraternity in response to a petition filed by Bhopal-based NGO Prayatna in the Supreme Court which seeks a ban on tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), on the other hand, has proposed a complete ban on tourism in the core and buffer areas of these reserves. While some conservationists believe tourism to be a major impediment for tiger conservation, many are of the opinion that it provides sustenance to the ‘poor tribals’ living around PAs. There is also a fraction of people advocating the proverbial ‘middle path’ of sustainable tourism and some who are weary of the double standards involved in designation of inviolate protected areas where tribals are evicted and tourists welcomed.

Below are three major arguments revolving around the issue…

Pro-tourism, pro-tribals – ‘masked capitalists’
The press conference organised by TOFT and other ‘vested interests’ as a rejoinder to NTCA’s stand received much flak from the media (such as the Baiga example). The supporters have been accused of influencing public opinion (including the media) in favour of tourism by playing the tribal card. While neither being in favour of tribals living inside park boundary nor greatly inclined to share tourism profits equitably, their emphasis on inclusiveness is criticised for being superficial and even paradoxical. Poaching, they say, is a bigger threat than tourism and hence tribals cannot be encouraged to live inside the forest. This may be a point to concede. But on the other hand, the mayhem caused by haphazard tiger-centric tourism currently in practice is clearly unacceptable.

Pro-tribal, anti-tourism – ‘socialists’
There are some who deem it unethical to allow middle-class tourists to soak up the luxury of being in the wild at the expense of eviction of local communities traditionally dependent on the forest.  They have thus whole-heartedly opposed the presence of tourism which, in their opinion, doesn’t benefit tribals at all and is a morally incorrect thing to do. While this seems reasonable, it is not clear as to how many actually suggest involving the local communities (including the tribals) in taking the final decision regarding the tourism issue. Even though the concerns mirrored in these arguments are not baseless, it is worth considering that nature tourism provides crucial (if not the sole) experience to the middle classes much alienated from nature in their urban settlements. If harnessed in an appropriate manner, this so-called vice of tourism can be converted into the biggest ally of conservation. Furthermore, tourism provides free patrolling services for atleast certain zones where vehicles ply twice a day – a potential respite for otherwise strained forest guards.

Anti-tribal, anti-tourism – ‘oligarchs’
“No, the tiger cannot deal with people but surely we can” – a mindset reflected by many who believe in demarcation of inviolate protected areas (ie. areas that are free from human and livestock disturbance). This 19th century North American conservation model has found a stronghold in the Indian set-up and appears to have benefitted certain species that require a large area and healthy wild prey base to survive. It has also resulted in serious social unrest in a country that has high human densities many of whom are economically backward and equally dependent on the shrinking forests for sustenance.

Since tribals and tourism both present management challenges that divert the energy of the forest officials from other more important conservation measures, some prefer to restrict human entry altogether. However, the underlying message seems to be that forest conservators and researchers should be allowed (“How else are we going to monitor wild populations?”). So, what makes wildlife managers/researchers – the self-proclaimed stewards of the so-called ‘common heritage’ – stand apart from and above the vagaries of human nature?

The question to consider is: what does it mean to conserve nature and for whom are we conserving? And what happens when an ‘ignorant’ tiger enters the clearly demarcated human space looking for an occasional easy prey – after a history of repression people can hardly be expected to tolerate such incidents.  If the goal is conservation of nature for humankind then perhaps it’s time we shifted from exclusionary politics to participatory dissent.

Synthesizing the babel…
A recent study by Karanth and DeFries (2011) might prove to be useful in the context of tiger tourism. It highlights some of the key features of nature tourism in 10 tiger reserves in India. On the one hand, it points out the economic ramifications for locals living close to popular PAs who don’t receive their fair share of profit. On the other, it illustrates the challenge of managing tourist pressure and the urgent need for regulations. Inspite of the clear pitfalls in the current model of tourism, what is recommended is not a total ban on tourism but strengthening of regulations. The study can potentially act as baseline information for the highly fragmented nature of tourism in tiger reserves.

It is essential that we consider and deliberate upon all the aspects of the debate and develop a model or guidelines for initiating socially and environmentally responsible tourism which not only takes into account the opinion of the tribals and other stakeholders and but also actively involves them in decision-making[1]. Needless to say, models would vary depending on the demographics and some trade-offs are inevitable. In order to benefit locals and the tigers through tourism (and by extension, other wildlife) it is important to consider needs of both the sides.

Things that responsible tourism can facilitate:
– A Robust framework for channelling tourism money into park management.
– Strict regulations for lodge owners as far as waste disposal is concerned. Cap on the number of hotels around PAs with guidelines on location and distance from the park.
– Devising ways for the community to obtain larger shares of lodge-owner profits (depending on their capacity) or option to carry out equivalent welfare activities. (These activities can be identified in consultation with the communities but could include provisions for rain water harvesting, health check up, education, capacity building etc. Mandatory quota for local employment can be encouraged).
– Creating an association of wildlife photographers for building better nature interpretation models.
– Formulating a strategy for systematically diverting tourist vehicles in the tourism zone such that pressure from the tourists is not concentrated in one location. Also devising stringent rules, route systems and precise timings (this is already in place in some of the high-profile parks) with efficient enforcement of the laws.
– Enabling a system for tourists to make monetary contributions (either compulsory or voluntary) towards park management.

This might mean that an ‘average’ middle class person will not be able to afford the luxury of safaris because of the spiralling costs. It may, however, be imperative to generating revenue for managing the park, preserving its wildlife and ensuring an equitable distribution of accrued benefits to local communities. These are just some of the changes that can be brought about by using tourism in a positive manner.

This article has benefitted from discussions with Aparajita Dutta, Yash Veer Bhatnagar and Sachin Rai.


[1] Following an order by NTCA and tiger conservationists, a sub-committee was setup to develop guidelines to regulate tourist pressure in Tiger Reserves (Dutta, pers.comm)

10 thoughts on “Lest ‘inviolate’ become ‘empty’

  1. Thanks, Saloni, for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.

    Pigeon-holing is often very useful to showcase differences in position. But your categorisations are interesting indeed. Conspicuous by its absence in your article–but quite active in the real-world–is the ‘pro-tourism, anti-tribal’ configuration. One does not have to go far to find examples… our own well-to-do urban conservation fraternity abounds in them. Of course, like any other business that does not want to create a PR mess for itself, tourism operators too will never ever be openly anti-tribal. But, can one naively buy their PR spiel (like the dancing Baiga who digs high-end tourism) as a pro-tribal position? I don’t think so. The position you call ‘pro-tribal, pro-tourism’ really seems like the window-dressed version of a ‘pro-tourism, anti-tribal’ persuasion.

    To me, a well-considered ‘pro-tribal, pro-tourism’ position that is mindful of conservation would begin by examining its own footprint on the local ecology, economy and culture. It would demonstrate a willingness to engage tribals (and other local communities) in more equal partnerships (e.g., a shareholding arrangement) in their tourism businesses and not just hire them as providers of menial services as entertainers, janitors, field guides, drivers or bell-boys. If this group needs an epithet, they might be called the democratic entrepreneurs (with the emphasis on democratic, not entrepreneur). I struggle to find examples, partly because of my own ignorance, but partly also because this idea must seem quite silly to any conventional entrepreneur/investor, for why would one share profits that one could so easily corner for oneself? Perhaps some of the EDC/VFC-run tourism facilities in Periyar and other parts of Kerala, and Gorukana in BRT may be steps in that direction but I would love to know if there are similar efforts with private promoters anywhere.

    The other serious concern is how wildlife tourism is today rapidly becoming an option only for the well-heeled. And private sector participation in wildlife tourism has only worsened the problem. Things being such as they are, I think the Forest Departments’ own hospitality and tourism offerings–sub par and thoroughly deserving of the criticisms heaped on them–are still a significantly better alternative to any that the private sector has given us. If not for the few FD facilities that remain, ordinary Indians today cannot dream of a weekend in a wildlife sanctuary with the family, which they could afford at many locations even a decade ago. So, while it may indeed be true that, for a few fortunate Indians with the power to pay, there are many more options today to experience India’s magnificent wilds, for most Indians of more modest means, such opportunities may have dwindled significantly. And so, while this model of wildlife tourism may surely be helping create a deeper appreciation of our natural heritage among our elite, it is slowly but surely alienating our common people from nature at a time when we perhaps most need them to make and sustain such a connection.

    While there is no doubt that private wildlife tourism and photography businesses have some really sincere and extremely well-meaning people who genuinely care about both people and wildlife, the sector, on the whole, behaves like any other extractive land-based industry today. First, they hunger in similar ways for access to land with the best resources (wildlife viewing, in this case) and are just as insecure/intolerant of competing claims to that land (tribal or otherwise). Second, their environmental and social concerns come, if at all, as after-thoughts to private profit. But it would be just as unfair to brand them as unscrupulous racketeers as it would be to celebrate them as conservation crusaders. Today, they are just another legitimate business; no less, no more. And like any sensible business would do, they act in ways that first serve them commercially. Conservation and community, in that order, come only thereafter.

    1. +1

      I would be interested in looking at the “class” of people visiting our forests? Is it really the middle class? Barring the tariff at forest dept camps, nothing else is affordable for a middle class family in Karnataka. Pardon my ignorance if any.

      Secondly, I would like to understand on how tourism is scalable model. Does it really provide livelihood opportunities for the people living there? Does it improve access to education, healthcare etc? How many jobs can each resort provide to people from the local communities?

      Just curious.

      1. Dear Anush,

        Not sure if you were expecting a reply from Madhu or me.. I think the middle-class covers a large percent of our population but even within it you have the ‘lower middle-class’ and the ‘upper middle class’ (perhaps even the ‘middle middle-class!). I think presently only the middle to upper middle class are able to afford making a visit to the the high profile TRs. The rest might be able to make a trip to the less glamourous parks (Madhu please correct me if I am wrong).

        The argument here is that tourism has the *unrealised* potential to benefit communities living around PAs. Offhand, I can think of Eaglenest WLS in Arunachal Pradesh which I used to frequent as a volunteer. The land just adjacent to the Sanctuary belongs to a tribe named Bugun and is an excellent birding destination which attracts hundreds of international birders. All the tourists pay a community fee to the Buguns and the staff at the campsite is entirely ‘local’ (this includes Nepalis who have been living there for a long time). On the flipside, tour leaders are invariably city blokes and locals are only employed as porters, cooks etc. But this is because none of them have really been willing to come forward to lead tours (inspite of the capacity building measures carried out by Kaati Trust for whom I used to volunteer) as they prefer tending their fields instead. Anyway, tourism may benefit the locals because of the increased income and by creating a different kind of value for the landscape but it can also have an impact of its ecology – more waste, more plastic, increased and irresponsible use of playback devices to attract birds. I am not sure about how it has impacted education and healthcare.

        Anyway, my point here is that tourism can benefit local communities (depending on certain conditions). Tiger tourism, though, is an entirely different ball game and operates at a much larger scale which is why its socio-ecological impact may be greater and needs regulation.

  2. Dear Madhu,

    I completely agree with most of your arguments. I understand that my labelling can be a point of debate. Let me try to explain…

    ‘Pro-tourism, pro-tribal’ is certainly a contentious label but by no means do I intend to say that they are genuinely ‘pro-tribal’ (which is why I have followed it up by using the words ‘masked capitalists’ – giving an indication that there is more to the story than naive ‘pro-tribalness’. The content that follows also attempts to expose the utilitarian nature of their assumed concern for the tribals. What I am trying to explain here is that even though I have used the words ‘pro-tribal’ its only for want of better words 🙂 I somehow prefer to highlight the hypocrisy of their standpoint by using ‘pro tribal’ than using ‘anti-tribal’ outright!

    Further, I do agree that private sector participation in wildlife tourism has not directly benefited wildlife and has instead caused significant ecological disturbance. My heart breaks to see the number of constructions on the banks of River Kosi in Corbett, for example. Wildlife photographers are also to be blamed (just as other ordinary tourists dressed in reds and purples). Even so, I think it would be a good idea to utilise their talent for conservation purpose.

    I also think that responsible tourism largely operates in a capitalistic framework even though it makes concessions to local communities which is why at a finer scale, one gets the semblance of equity and at a coarser scale the burden is transferred to the wealthier lot. The ‘common man’ (though I find it hard to define this term) is sandwiched between the two. As you rightly point out, sustainable ventures come at high costs to certain sections. Forest department’s tourism offerings can be a compromise but is still a state-owned enterprise. The Periyar example sounds interesting though.

    Another thing suggested by Aparajita was having community-initiated tourism enterprise but for this the community must own land and have the resources to run such a venture (they may need considerable support of govt. and NGOs for this). Meanwhile, I do think that involving locals as legitimate stakeholders in private sector hotels and making these hotels offset their footprint is essential – inspite of its undesired consequences (like the common man losing out). I would love to know if you think there is a better way out of this.

    Thanks again for talking the pains to leave such a detailed feedback!

    P.S. FYI, MoEF already has a set of ‘eco-tourism guidelines’, available at:
    http://www.toftigers.org/Documents/DraftEcotourismGuidelines2June.pdf

  3. Hello,
    The guidelines you have linked to are only at the ‘draft’ stage, and I’m not sure if the final guidelines are out. Will be interesting to see how this pans out. The draft includes:
    ‘2.1.8. As part of the State-level Ecotourism Strategy, the State government should levy a “local conservation cess” as a percentage of turn-over, on all privately-run tourist facilities within 5 km of the boundary of a Protected Area. The rate of cess should be determined by the State Government, and the monies thus collected should be earmarked to fund Protected Area management, conservation and local livelihood development, and not go to the State
    Exchequer as discussed in 2.1.4 above.
    (The Tiger Task Force Report in 2005 recommended that hotels within a radius of 5 km from the boundary of a reserve must contribute 30 percent of their turnover to the reserve. Further, the hotels can be allowed to claim 100 percent income tax benefit for the same, as incentive.)’
    30% of turnover, not profit. And your ‘Pro-tourism, pro-tribal’ group (whom Madhu calls anti-tribal), says “30 per cent is too much for us. We cannot share more than 5 per cent of it with the communities.” http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/tiger-tour-operators-incidental-love-tribals

    And while the guidelines do allow for some tourism:
    ‘2.2.4. Given that traditional tourism has been happening in national parks/sanctuaries; many of which now form part of core/critical tiger habitat or critical wildlife habitat, and also taking note of the need to implement the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the following norms maybe be adhered to in the context of ecological-tourism activities, and included in the ecotourism plan of the Protected Area. For critical wildlife habitats of national parks/sanctuaries and for core/critical tiger habitats of tiger reserves;
    a) Larger than 500 sq.km, 20% of such areas may be permitted for regulated ecotourism access, subject to the condition that 30% of the surrounding buffer/fringe area should be restored as a wildlife habitat in 5 years.
    b) Smaller than 500 sq.km, 15% of such areas may be permitted for regulated ecotourism access, subject to the condition that 20% of the surrounding buffer/fringe area should be restored as a wildlife habitat in 5 years.’

    They also seem keen to ban all tourism from TRs where relocation has happened, which means almost all our TRs!
    ‘2.2.5. Any core area in a Tiger Reserve from which relocation has been carried out, will not be used for tourism activities. (It is bold in the document) Forest dwellers who have been relocated will be given priority in terms of livelihood generation activities related to ecotourism in the Protected Area from which they have been relocated. Protected Area Management will make a special effort in this regard.
    2.2.7. In a phased manner (within five years), permanent residential facilities located inside of core-critical tiger habitat/critical wildlife habitat, which are being used for wildlife tourism should be moved to revenue lands outside.’

    So yes, I think interesting times ahead!

  4. Dear Tarsh,

    Thank you for your comment. I am aware that the ‘pro-tribal’ bandwagon is not really ‘pro’ (have tried explaining this in my comment to Madhu) and have also given reference to the same link as yours in the article itself 🙂

    Also, I have my reservations about some of the points in the eco-tourism guidelines esp. the one where they intend to phase out tourism. I don’t intend to endorse the guidelines but only shared for information sake. But you have highlighted some really important points here! Indeed, interesting times ahead…

  5. Dear Pavithra,

    I am kind-of glad that the guidelines are still in the draft stage. Is there still scope to argue for tourism in TRs? 🙂 The foreword by JR says that this was drafted in consultation with communities, wonder if they would really suggest banning tourism…

  6. Within this tiger ~ tribal ~ tourist debate, I wonder what the concept of “park” has evolved into.
    Parks were created long before the biodiversity crisis arrived. When Yosemite Valley became a protected area, the declaration signed by US President Linclon said that it would “be held for public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable for all time”
    How things change!

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