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. 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.
 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)