August 29: The Supreme Court indicated today that it intends to approve controlled tourism, reversing its previous stand after facing widespread criticism. It extended the ban till its next hearing on September 27 to give time for regulations to be drawn up .______________________________________________________________________
Is it better for a tiger sometimes to feel harassed by hordes of noisy tourists, or be killed by poachers? That is the simple question raised by one of the most ill-advised edicts ever issued by India’s Supreme Court, which last week backed a misguided conservationist lobby and banned all tourism in the core areas of the country’s 40-plus tiger reserves.
It may seem perverse to write about India’s tiger problems instead of about the spectacular opening of the Olympic Games in London three days ago, but there is a link. A spoof television sit com, Twenty Twelve, has been running on the BBC about a mostly incompetent Olympics Deliverance Commission. Faced with the risk of the opening ceremony’s massive firework display triggering the automatic firing of anti-bomber missiles stationed nearby, the commission eventually got something right and hit on the bright idea of using virtual fireworks that are broadcast on television around the world as if they were live – only the audience in the Olympic stadium knows they are not.
Imagine India being forced to show virtual tigers on big television screens in the middle of national parks because the 1,700 or so that still survive have been decimated. That is the risk if the authorities do not get real about how to save them – and that includes recognising that tourists are useful as a major deterrent to poaching.
The ban has been widely criticised because closing the areas will open them to tiger poachers setting traps, and to “timber mafia” illegally felling trees, without the risk of being spotted by tourists. These groups will bribe their way past under-paid forest guards, having bought-off their bosses up to top bureaucrats and politicians. Select visitors such as leading businessmen will pay their way into the areas for up-market parties, as well as organisers of night-time events. State governments will lose tourism revenues that help to pay for forest guards, and there is also a risk of Naxalite Maoist rebels, who operate in remote forest areas including some parks, expanding their activities.
Wildlife tourism should be of course strictly controlled, as it has been increasingly in recent years – in many parks, tourists are already not allowed in some areas and the number of vehicles that can be deployed is limited (usually 50 a day). That has inevitably led to some corruption in vehicle bookings, but it has kept the numbers down and has reduced some of the worst harassment of tigers (see photographs above and near the end). There is also a need to restrict rampant hotel and other luxury construction surrounding core areas because these often block corridors that are essential for tigers and other animals to move from one area to another and link different breeding groups.
In Africa, tourism is used as a tool for conservation and there are several examples of well-regulated tourism, good protection and community-participation. I have seen this at Pilanesberg wildlife park near Pretoria, South Africa, (below) where discreet tourist facilities were strictly controlled and there did not appear to be any encroachment or unauthorised construction in adjacent areas.
The Supreme Court’s edict is a rare example of bad judgement. For many years, the courts have been handing down instructions for work that should have been done by central, state and municipal governments – ranging from ordering the removal of street garbage to cancelling fraudulent telecom licences in the recent 2G corruption scandal. Their judgements are usually sound, but they sometimes go too far, as critics think they did in cancelling the telecom licences, and as they certainly have done with the tigers.
Often the judgements stem from public interest litigations (PILs) that are filed by lawyers and others with a mixture of motives. In this case, a public information activist, Ajay Dubey, filed a PIL to ban tourism in the Jabalpur High Court in September 2010, asking for implementation of a 2006 amendment to the Wild Life (Protection) Act that stated that tiger reserves are “required to be kept as inviolate”. He argued that the directive meant that all tourism activities should be banned from the core areas of tiger reserves. The issue was further complicated by the fact that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had almost all the tiger reserves declared “core/critical tiger habitat” in 2007 to circumvent the 2008 Forest Rights Act that gave preferential access to traditional forest dwellers and tribals.
The Jabalpur Court rejected the PIL and ruled that “tourism is not prohibited in tiger reserves but is permitted subject to normative standards laid down by the NTCA”. It argued that the NTCA had not implied a complete tourism ban when it said that parks should be kept “inviolate for the purposes of tiger conservation”.
Dubey appealed against that judgement (in July last year) to the Supreme Court, which ruled that all states should designate buffer areas. Few states complied so on July 24 (this year) the court made an interim order that all core areas should be closed to tourism. This has led to many states declaring buffer areas in recent weeks, but conservationists argue that such states have breached wildlife and forest laws by ignoring requirements for prior consultation with villages and scientific fixing of buffer boundaries.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests has recently published eco-tourism guidelines, which include gradually closing sections of the core areas over five years, though there is little agreement in India about what eco-tourism means .
These guidelines are written up and posted on the website of the Centre for Science and Environment whose director general, Sunita Narain, had a role in the drafting. They propose local (undefined) community-based and low-impact tourism that is conservation-oriented and has educational benefits. Tourist facilities will pay a 10% levy from their revenues, and forest dwellers will have special rights.
Wildlife conservation experts say that it would take years longer than the guidelines envisage to implement these plans, especially in the development of wildlife activity in buffer areas where multiple activities, including villages and agricultural land. Some critics say that the proposals will accentuate and spread conflict between animals and villagers that is already a serious problem in some areas.
The Supreme Court said it would review its interim order’s core area ban at its next hearing on August 22 ( when it extended the ban to August 29 and then to September 27).
It might not matter much if the ban only lasts these few weeks, especially in northern India where many parks are closed during the monsoon. The risk is that it might not be cancelled – and even if it is, the muddled ecotourism guidelines have a long term aim of closing the areas.
It is not impossible however for wildlife conservation to progress alongside regulated tourism, and that has been shown by the official numbers of India’s tigers going up from around 1,400 to 1,700 since a 2008 census when the situation was dire.
But the Supreme Court’s ban is not the way. The judges’ detachment from reality was demonstrated when they said last week that “the tigers are on the edge of extinction” – ignoring the 1,400 to 1,700 increase, which has happened with tourists inside the core areas.