MP formula to boost wildlife tourism: Turn Tiger State into a brand and live off Tigers

Lalit Shastri

Madhya Pradesh Congress Government led by Chief Minister Kamal Nath has gone into the overdrive mode to promote tourism in wildlife areas of the State after there was a proposal from Valmik Thapar, founder of Ranthambore Foundation, for setting up an empowered committee to boost tourism in the Tiger Reserves.

Thapar batted for an empowered committee to promote tourism in Tiger Reserves but his proposal has been dismissed by the Wildlife Wing of the State Forest department, on the ground that there is no provision for such a committee under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA).

The meeting of the State Wildlife Board was earlier fixed for 6 August at the Chief Minister’s initiative, when the process was still on to reconstitute the Board under Section 6 of WPA. After the Board had been reconstituted on 3 August, it was decided to hold this meeting on 21 August but even this got postponed “indefinitely” at the last moment after a case was registered in the Jabalpur High Court challenging the reconstitution of the Board mainly on the ground that the Government had violated the provisions of WPA by nominating some persons as non-official members who were not eminent conservationists, environmentalists and ecologists.

The Wildlife Board has the mandate to approve or clear any policy decision or activity that leaves an impact on wildlife, and more particularly the Tiger Reserves. This body advises the State Government in the selection of areas to be declared as Sanctuaries, National Parks and closed areas and their administration; in formulation of the policy for protection and conservation of the wild life and specified plants; in any matter relating to the amendment of any Schedule; in relation to the measures to be taken for harmonizing the needs of the tribals and other dwellers of the forest with the protection and conservation of wild life; and in any other matter connected with the protection of wild life which may be referred to it by the State Government.

Instead of creating grounds for the smooth conduct of business by the State wildlife Board after ensuring that it is constituted strictly under the provisions of the WPA, the Chief Minister, on Monday, 19 August 2019, chaired a meeting, which was attended by State Forest Minister Umang Singar, Tourism Minister Surendra Singh Baghel, former Minister Ajay Singh and Chief Secretary SR Mohanty. According to an official press release, also present at this meeting, were “tourism experts, wildlife experts, resort owners, tourism service providers in forest areas and tour operators. The official communique is silent regarding the wildlife experts present at the meeting.

This meeting concluded with the announcement that a committee comprising of owners of “resorts run in the National Parks, beneficiaries, Additional Chief Secretary of Forest, Chief Conservator of Forest-Wildlife and Principal Secretary Tourism” is being constituted to prepare a “concrete strategy to boost tourism in wildlife areas of the State”. The deadline for this committee to present its report to the Chief Minister is 15 September.

At this meeting, taking cue from the freshly regained Tiger State status, the Chief Minister said it is a matter of pride and told the participants that tourism should be promoted by building a brand and taking full advantage of the situation. He went on to underscore that by boosting tourism, economic activities are bound to increase and more jobs will be created at smaller levels.

Monday’s meeting can help the Government draw a policy taking into consideration their business perspective but what is important is a vision and a road map for developing infrastructure for wildlife and adventure tourism in a forest landscape that could either be a buffer zone or even territorial forest. Utmost care should be taken to ensure the Tiger Reserves are not bombarded by tourism.

What about the carrying capacity: Photo by Jiten Harode; courtesy Sanctuary Nature Foundation

Already, in terms of the carrying capacity, the Tiger Reserves in the State are bursting at the seems. The situation has reached such levels that even the Chief Minister was compelled to express his concern regarding entry tickets for Tiger Reserves being “sold in black” at the Monday meeting. Hence for boosting wildlife tourism the Government cold consider starting tiger safaris in the buffer areas by fencing large tracts and relocating some tigers and ensuring there is adequate prey-base.

When it comes to wildlife tourism and more particularly tiger tourism, there is need to tread cautiously. There is no point aping what the tour operators have to offer in terms of a safari in a wildlife reserve like the Kruger National Park in South Africa. While the area of Kruger is 19,485 km², the total area of all the Protected Areas (PAs) of Madhya Pradesh is only10,862 km².

Today even Kruger’s forest ecosystem is threatened by intensive poaching, urban development at its periphery, intensive mining and natural factors like global warming and recurring drought. Due to the size of Kruger, these challenges can be addressed through mitigation measures.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Protected Areas are also threatened by fragmented corridors and buffer areas are facing extreme biotic pressure due to poaching, habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict.. Hence the priority closer home has to be conservation, of course, while ensuring livelihood for the stakeholders. The main focus cannot be on efforts to turn the Tiger Reserves into money spinning tourism projects. The objective of Tiger Reserves is not tourism but conservation of wildlife and the forest ecosystem. Tourism is only incidental.

The Government is free to entertain proposals and inputs from resort owners and tour operators. It is also free to set up a committee and seek a report to push the agenda to boost wildlife tourism but at the end of the day, before moving forward, it will need approval at every step from the Tiger Conservation Authority (TCA). Under Section 38O (1) (c) of Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, TCA has the powers and performs the function of laying down normative standards for tourism activities and guidelines for project tiger from time to time for tiger conservation in the buffer and core area of tiger reserves and ensure their due compliance. Besides, under Section 38O (1) (g) of WPA, the TCA ensures that the tiger reserves and areas linking one protected area or tiger reserve with another protected area or tiger reserve are not diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, except in public interest and that has to be with the approval of the National Board for Wild Life and on the advice of the TCA.

Those setting their eyes on expanding the tourism industry keeping in focus the tiger reserves should know that discontinuities or habitat fragmentation and ecosystem decay has progressively set in geological processes that have altered the physical landscape across the central Indian highlands- the heart of India’s wildlife. It is a huge watershed that charges the Narmada river and its many tributaries, that cater to the water needs of not only Madhya Pradesh but at least ten other States, making the Central Indian Satpura Maikal Landscape (SML), the region surrounding Satpura in West and Maikal hill ranges in East the water capital of India. This region is home to some of India’s largest forest tracts, rich wildlife as well as the ethnic communities or the scheduled tribes, that have been living in the forests for several millennia.

We also cannot ignore that this area – the Central Indian highlands – is endowed with huge mineral and natural wealth. Hence, there is excessive pressure for the exploitation of these resources in this area.

Why push wildlife into a corner. Let’s leave them some space. Let them live.

The forest cover in Madhya Pradesh, in the context the Tiger habitat – has been shrinking at an alarming pace. The human pressure on the buffers and general forests is immense, mainly due to rapidly increasing population. The situation gets aggravated by the destruction of forest by timber mafia, illegal squatters, reckless mining, grazing and minor forest produce and firewood collection.

The basic issue confronting us today is how to halt the rate of destruction, depletion and disintegration of the tiger habitat, green cover, and ecological system.

An analysis of the State of Forest Report regularly brought out by the Forest Survey of India, shows that every passing report is a reminder that our forest resources are going down on each and every count – whether we talk of growing stock, density, site quality, distribution of age, current annual increment, mean annual increment, status of regeneration and susceptibility to biotic pressure.

There are 8000 forest beats in Madhya Pradesh and 20 per cent of these are positive for occurrence of tigers. For protection of tigers, the entry and exit in National Parks and Sanctuaries should be regulated and the movement inside the Protected Areas should be minimised.

The concerns and threats notwithstanding, the habitat of central India is still very good for the perpetual survival of tigers in this subcontinent and this gets amply reflected by the fact that Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of tigers (526) in the country.

When we take tourism to the doorsteps of the tiger habitat, the immediate fallout is not just movement of vehicles for bringing in tourists but also an upsurge in building and construction activity, transportation of men and material and regular supply of food and other essentials and to top it the disposal of waste and garbage. What would also add to pollution in this scenario is emission from the vehicles and their sound. All this is reason enough why the Supreme Court of India has already put a bar on the carrying capacity of tiger reserves.

For the survival of humankind and all other species, we have to protect the biotic pyramid with the tiger sitting at it apex

The author, Lalit Shastri, is Editor-in-Chief Newsroom24x7. During his long innings as a journalist with The Hindu and The Asian Age, he has persistently written on issues like forest degradation, threat to endangered species, rapidly depleting ground water, watershed management, industrial pollution, and urban waste. He has also worked extensively to promote education on environment, engage young ones and influence those who make decisions on issues like environment, wildlife and care for wetlands.

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