Friday, September 28, 2012

Obituary to tiger tourism?

Tourism should also benefit wildlife and local communities ©Bivash Pandav

 Some wildlife conservationists welcomed it as ‘the move’ to save tigers; a few called it ‘ridiculous’; the media termed it as a ‘ban’ on tiger tourism carried out in India’s 41 tiger reserves. These fragmented reactions were in response to the recent Supreme Court orders that caught extensive attention the world over. Few closely looked at the court’s order before assumptions were made. The court is perhaps not on its way to restrict public access to appreciate tigers in the wild; it is possibly a temporary holdup to achieve a conservation goal. 

I speculate that the court wants to ensure that some of the states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan, which hold poster boy reserves attracting tourists to spot the elusive cats but under immense pressure from tourism, to delineate buffer zones. Till 2006 no legal category as tiger reserves existed in the country’s strong wildlife legislation. An amendment to the law brought in the concept of ‘core zones’ that were to be kept inviolate, and ‘buffer zones’ encompassing multiple use forest areas. But some states ignored this part of the law and ignored delineating buffer zones. 

Returning to the current situation; the tourism industry has hit back at the ban saying that it would take away the extra sets of eyes protecting tigers from poaching, would impact local economies and the vital investments it brought to tiger conservation. However these tall claims are only partially true. In most Indian tiger reserves tourism is carried out in small parts of the reserves while larger portions are continued to be protected by the barefoot soldiers of the forest department despite the hardships they face. Tourism gains momentum only after industriousness of the forest staff brings back animals so that they are available for tourism. It is certainly not the other way round. 

Yes, tourism industry does benefit communities but in a miniscule way. I studied the benefits of such an activity in the celebrated Periyar Tiger Reserve in southern India and the study results are very strikingly different than the advertised claims. Only 0.8% of the beneficiaries of a large World Bank funded project benefited from the tourism industry as a primary source of occupation. However there is no argument that atleast a few families have been profited. 

But the indirect costs tourism has put by way of fragmenting corridors through establishment of luxury lodges with blaring wedding receptions, New Year Eve’s parties at the edges of tiger turfs, unethical safari practices and other environmental pressures, have had serious impacts on tiger conservation. 

The challenge has also been the elitist model of tourism where local people stand and watch the large benefits filched away by operators while they bear the brunt of conservation through human-wildlife conflict and reduced access to resources. The crux is that the industry has only looked at short-sighted ‘profit only’ motives by green washing using the term ‘eco-tourism’. It has failed to demonstrate the spirit of eco-tourism in its real meaning. There could be a few exceptions that exist, but surely minority in numbers. 

Some western based tour operators claiming rights over the country’s tiger pastures have little understanding of Indian protected areas which are specks of landscapes unlike in the African parks where land set aside for wildlife conservation is colossal, hence experimentations on tourism is not a luxury there.  One of the best tiger reserves in the country, Bandipur (890 sq km) home to about 80 tigers, one of the highest densities of tigers anywhere in the world, has a good model of protection, has no human habitation but is less than the size of Delhi Municipal Corporation area (1,397 sq km). We need to tourism that is complimentary of all these aspects rather than one size fits all model.  

I am confident the court would permit tourism, when the issue comes up in a few days, that is largely focused on education rather than a marathon, chaotic, mass tourism approach. Pragmatic conservationists are supportive of controlled tourism. We need tourism as an education tool. The current sensationalisation and panic about the issue should die down while the court would meet again as the newly constituted committee considers various options to be submitted to the court in a few days. 

My experience says that tourism will continue in tiger reserves; however the industry should have foreseen a situation like this and have taken up self-motivated corrective measures to avoid circumstances like these. 

An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 26-09-2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

Flammable Forests; Managing Fire Safe Forests

Fire burns down all vegetation and leaf litter accumulated on forest floor. ©:Sanjay Gubbi 

During the months of February and March this year, reports about vast forest fires sprouted like radishes in south Indian media. It became a hot topic. Fires blackened some protected areas in Karnataka; Nagarahole, Bandipur, Shettihalli were on the forefront bringing the issue of fire management into the vanguard of conservation debate. Forest fires act as an important portent of the larger conservation problems due to its ecological and socio-political angle. They perhaps give an insight of our relationship with nature.

Forest Survey of India predicts that about 3.3 million hectares of forests are annually affected by fires in India largely affecting deciduous and scrub habitats and pine forests. India hosts parts of the four biodiversity hotspots of the world; the Western Ghats, Himalayas, Indo-Burma and Indian ocean islands. Unfortunately, fires threaten most parts of these hotspots.

Tropical dry deciduous forests are most prone to fires due to their vegetation characteristics. However, proximate causes of fires are neither due to lightning nor bamboo rubbing, as popularly believed. Fires are intentionally ignited.

Man tames landscapes to his advantages and one of the key tools has been fire. Though in the modern times fires are set for reasons that are varied, a widespread cause of human-induced forest fires is the vendetta against forest department. Poachers, timber smugglers and others who hold a grudge against the department use summer as an ideal opportunity to settle scores.

Forest fires and livestock grazing are interwoven. Several communities living on the borders of protected areas depend on livestock for livelihood and other purposes. Cattle grazers set forests on fire to promote growth of green fodder for their livestock.

Collectors of non-timber forest produce, popularly termed as NTFPs, such as amla (Phyllanthus emblica), ink nut (Terminalia chebula), Mahua flowers (Madhuca longifolia), deer antlers, lemon grass (Cymbopogon grass) all set forests on fire to facilitate collection of these products. The thick forest undergrowth obstructs clear vision making collection of these products very difficult. Hence, the collectors find the easier way out by burning the undergrowth and many times, these fires go uncontrolled devastating large patches of forests. Sometimes collectors of beedi leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon) set fires in the belief that fire would enhance the growth and yield of leaves.

The causal factors of fire are generally similar across the country with some regional variations. For instance, shifting cultivation (Jhum cultivation) is no more prevalent in parts of the country but it still persists in north-eastern area which is one of the important reasons of man-made forest fires.
Religious congregations, festivals and fairs held inside protected areas are a serious concern for fire protection. These annual events, many of them coinciding with high fire risk period, are an important source of forest fires. Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka is a typical example of this. Over 10 large congregations happen within the tiger reserve annually with several thousand people attending these events.

There are instances of self-goal as well; most times this is due to negligence or by accident and unintentional. Managers as part of the broad management strategy carry out controlled burning in the form of creation of fire lines. Vegetation and leaf litter along forest roads and fire lines that criss-cross the forests are burnt under controlled conditions to prevent fires spreading from one area to another. Nevertheless, due to negligence or untimely burning of these fire lines can also lead to destructive fires.

An agent of change
There is little argument about the various impacts of forest fires on flora and fauna though hard core scientific evidence exists on a few factors. Effects can be categorized as immediate or long-term, direct or indirect impacts. But all of these effects indeed have a large impact on the ecosystem. Even from an economic perspective, forest fires cause grave losses. Ministry of Environment and Forests estimates about $110 million worth of forests being lost to fires annually in India.

Fires destabilize the system locally. However the destructive power of fire is perhaps instantly and glaringly seen on vegetation. Fires leave a doomsday image in the forests. Natural forests are charred burning countless plants, trees and micro fauna causing a spurt in human-induced ecological changes. Fires burn out seeds on the forest floor that would otherwise be waiting for the rains to germinate, impacting tree groups that solely depend upon seed germination for regeneration than those that can resprout clonally. Similarly, tree seedlings are lost to fires. Both these severely affect forest regeneration.

Repeated forest fires encourage the growth of fire hardy tree species such as rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), catechu (Acacia catechu), Indian laburnum (Casia fistula), dog teak (Dillenia pentagyna), dhaura (Anogeisus latifolia) and others. If we skip ahead 50 years, the picture changes and the forests will be forced to monoculture negatively affecting species diversity and forest composition. There are adequate and appropriate scientific evidences that demonstrate the decrease in endemic species as fire tolerant tree species increase in an area. Narendra Kodandapani of the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation who has carried out impact studies of fires on forest diversity estimates a reduction of tree species by 60% in fire prone areas compared to areas with low fire frequency in the tropical dry deciduous forests of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

This apart, juvenile trees get stunted for years gravely influencing tree growth rates in areas that repeatedly suffer burning, encouraging stunted forest understory. Invasive and exotic weeds such as lantana and eupatorium are also promoted by fires.

Ground fires will kill forest regeneration and encourage fire hardy species in an area.  ©Sanjay Gubbi

Though fire-induced mortality on faunal species is less visible except for the occasional detection of carcass of smaller mammals, fires should indeed be affecting young ones of large mammals such as tigers, leopards, jungle cat, leopard cat, civets, martens who hide their young ones in tree cavities. Similarly, woodpeckers, barbets, owls, parakeets and a host of other bird groups that nest in tree holes or ground nesting birds such as lapwings, pipits, nightjars, peafowl would see their eggs or young ones charred in fires. The bigger, indirect impact is the loss of food sources and habitat for larger fauna. Fire will burn out food sources of all herbivorous, granivorous, insectivorous and other fauna. However, studies on these impacts are less studied in our country.

Leaf litter accumulated through the year completely decomposed and converted to nutrients are all lost due to raging fires. This leads to loss of micro fauna that is so important in fixing nutrients affecting soil quality and degrading overall eco-system.

Making forests fire safe
So, do we have answers to mitigate problems of forest fires? As with several conservation related problems, answers are based on a combination of factors. It may not be possible to bring forest fires to ground zero; however, tragedies and large-scale fires are avoidable with preparedness and timely interventions.  

Traditional fire management practices, if well planned and implemented, are the best mode of controlling forest fires. Timely implementation of preventive measures such as fire lines that need to be burnt during late winters when there is enough moisture in the vegetation is vital. Employing fire control watchers at the appropriate time, watchmen equipped with wireless stationed at high vantage locations to observe for any incidences of fires are all components of good fire management practices. 

Developing a rapport with communities on the immediate vicinity of forests and other outreach activities can help to a large extent. This is a place where conservation volunteers can play an important role. In Karnataka, several interested youngsters belonging to groups such as Vanya, Wildlife Matters, Aranya and others have been working in villages around Biligirirangaswamybetta, Nugu, Nagarahole and Bandipur protected areas. With the ending of winter, these youngsters in collaboration with forest department toil in areas that are extremely hostile towards wildlife conservation. Results for their efforts may not be obvious and instant; hopefully, in the long run it should prove useful. There should be several other groups in other parts of the country carrying out similar worthy tasks.

Civil societies that promote harvesting of NTFPs as livelihood models should develop methodologies and educate communities on practices that do not use fire for harvesting of NTFPs, wherever they are legally allowed. 

A very serious issue that normally goes unnoticed is linked to the Government’s financial year. Unfortunately, high fire risk season coincides with the ending of Governmental financial year (31st March). Foresters are under pressure to meet their financial targets during these months and the focus, leadership, manpower and management for fire control does not take precedence. Hence funding for protected area management should arrive in field level accounts in a timely manner or new policies need to be evolved such that spending targets especially for protected areas are on different timelines.

Does advanced technology help prevent forest fires? Advances in technology have helped in monitoring fires both on a local and global scale. It’s an important tool to analyse fires post burning than used for fire prevention. Understanding spatial distribution, seasonal variation of fire patterns can largely be done using technology. Remote Sensing and Geographical Information System can help in identifying fire prone zones for development of appropriate management regimes. But to remind these are gears to review and evaluate retrospectively than to prevent fires.

One of the solutions promoted includes eradication of exotic weeds such as Lantana. This issue is still largely debated even within the scientific community with diverse views. In a recent publication in the reputed journal Plos One, scientists of Oxford University suggest that removal of lantana is almost next to impossible; hence, not offering solutions for fire prevention. 

Managing fires is a hard task for field staff ©Sanjay Gubbi

Is black green?
Forest fires are one of the important ubiquitous threats as our protected areas are abutted by high human densities, many of them with antipathy towards conservation. From evidences, the trends and fire intervals now seem quite predictable. So, are we learning the hard lessons from previous incidences? Are we developing comprehensive fire management strategies? These are some of the questions that arise every time major forest fire incidences occur. How to manage fires should be science based argue some, a few say it has to be based on socio-political issues and some bet their money on strict protection.  Some even say fires are good for forests as it burns down the fuel load preventing large scale fires.

Conservation science certainly has uncertainties with no black and white answers. However, until we have strong evidences about various questions the intelligentsia throw in, the ground rule remains the same; we need to protect our forests from fires. While we discuss and contemplate as to what are the most appropriate methods to handle the few biodiversity rich patches that are locked in our national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other ecologically sensitive areas, they should be protected from the deleterious effects of fires. Any outcomes of scientific debates can always be rooted into the process once answers are out.

Some major fires in protected areas of Karnataka
Area burnt due to fires (ha)
Nagarahole Tiger Reserve
Bhadra Tiger Reserve
Bhadra Tiger Reserve
Nagarahole Tiger Reserve
Bandipur Tiger Reserve
Nagarahole Tiger Reserve
Bandipur Tiger Reserve
Sources: *K.Ullas Karanth/WCS-India/CWS, +Somashekar et al. 2009, &Somashekar et al. 2008, $Krithi Karanth 2007

 An edited version of this article is published in the Survey of the Environment 2012