Monday, October 29, 2012

The 20 percent solution

It appears that the tiger never stays out of controversy. After the uproar about tiger numbers in the country about two years ago, the topic in tiger conservation that stirred a storm across the country was the recent closure of tourism in tiger reserve core zones by the Supreme Court. The lifting of the embargo by the court after eleven weeks of closure had mixed reactions. I am sure there were celebrations in some of the high profile reserves where tourism flourished as a titanic service industry. Some moaned, though most agree that low-key tourism as an education tool is a necessity.

Interestingly the court order says “all the concerned authorities will ensure that the requirements in the aforesaid guidelines for tourism in and around the tiger reserves are complied with before tourism activities recommence”. Several of the topics discussed in the guidelines may not have been met with. So if one played the devil’s advocate, can tourism actually recommence?

Perhaps the court achieved one of the important goals it had possibly aimed at. All state Governments have now delineated and notified buffer zones. The big question is do all tiger reserves have ecologically viable buffers that meets the true goals of a buffer? The authorities insist on including villages into buffer areas but there is little lucidity to have matrix of villages that have no tiger habitat either to act as sinks or permeable corridors. Where no tiger habitat exists outside the core zones, declaration of eco-sensitive zones would be better choices than buffers. Eco-sensitive zone regulates land use patterns on the immediate vicinity of tiger reserves where the growth of development such as mines or highways cannot be friendly neighbors to tigers.

The tourism was allowed to reopen based on a set of guidelines developed and submitted to the court. The two main thrusts of the guidelines are on ecological and economics aspects of tiger tourism and a few points from the document are worth debating.

The day after the court’s order to reopen tourism, media highlighted that 20% of the core areas were to be utilized for tourism. I was surprised when the guidelines were read in detail. The much publicized regulation that only 20% of the core area is to be used for tourism does not hold water. The guideline recommends “in case the current usage exceeds 20%, the local advisory committee may decide on a timeframe for bringing down the usage to 20%”. The word ‘may’ casts a doubt if tourism is going to be restricted to 20%.

The glaring of all the violations which attract public attention and the ire of wildlife enthusiasts is the riotous behavior of safari drivers and mahouts (wherever elephants are used for viewing tigers). Most times this is what is seen and easily understood by a common man bringing aversion towards tourism. But the key issue that is out of public observation and has real impact on tiger conservation is fragmentation of habitats where tourism infrastructure blocks corridors (currently just an ecological term with no legal backing). The guidelines suggests ‘shall inter alia, include identification of corridor connectivity and important wildlife habitats and mechanisms to secure them’. I wonder if out rightly putting a condition to make corridors as a legal category under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and recommending specific solutions to defragment blocked corridors could have brought legal teeth to reduce fragmentation effects. Without such unambiguous endorsements tourism infrastructure will continue to threaten tiger preservation.

Tourism infrastructure like these that block wildlife movement are the most serious impacts of tourism. ©Jay Mazoomdar

The state Governments have been asked to frame tourism and eco-tourism (finally recognition that eco-tourism is different from tourism) strategies within six months. This is another opportunity for framing policies that can make real changes for tiger conservation. The forthcoming documents should emphasize on mitigating the problem of fragmentation and callously deal with land use even if the infrastructure is on private land. 

Similarly using ecological criteria tourism should be shifted to buffer zones, wherever such forest patches exists and have the potential for tourism, in a phased but time bound manner. This in the long haul will help both tourism and tigers. 

On the economic front it is recommended that the park entry fee be utilized for conservation purposes. The concept of tiger foundation has already been implementing this for some years now. The guidelines seems to have watered down the earlier concept of 20% of the revenues for local community upliftment and human-wildlife conflict mitigation to a new model where the conservation fees is based on category of facilities, occupancy and duration of operation. A local advisory committee has been suggested for every tiger reserve to monitor these guidelines. Hope these committees will be able to deal with the implementation as most existing committees do not even function.   

A minimum sighting distance of 20 meters from the animal has to be maintained. A forest official quipped “who will hold the tape on the other side”. Other recommendations such as proper disposal of waste, adhering to pollution norms, use of renewable energy, are all rules that have been etched in stone under various guidelines, rules and acts.
Several tourism operators and tourists show little respect to wildlife on safaris. ©Vineith

I wonder if there is anything new in these guidelines to set things in the right direction. Unless there were time binding specific recommendations to defragment corridors the guidelines in the current state holds little on-ground benefits for the striped cat. I wonder what did this uproar and media hype achieve. Until another Ajay Dubey shakes the system the logjam will continue.

An edited version of this article is published in Deccan Herald on 30-10-2012