Triggering Tigers

Tiger Conservation and Ecotourism in India

Sumesh Mangalassery

A tiger, which had given sleepless nights to the people in several villages of Wayanad, Kerala, South India, has been killed by a task force of the Department of Forests, government of Kerala, last year. The beast ventured out of the forest and lifted over a dozen cattle and attacked humans from the neighbouring villages. This caused considerable dismay among the people, who were pressing the authorities to do something to rein the wild animal. The killing of tiger has triggered uproar within and outside the state and the ‘conservationists’ were up in arms against the killing while farmer’s associations and political parties were in favour of government action. The locals have lost their confidence in conservation activities and they feel these efforts are against their existence.

Contradicting conservation – double standards!

The very commercial interests and colonial fashion of nature conservation led to a complete alienation of local communities and indigenous people from conservation efforts. All these western style conservation efforts conveniently neglect the historical roles, knowledge and rights of local communities and are displacing them from their livelihoods. At the same time, tiger habitats in India are made available for the prosperous luxury tourists while kicking out the traditional forest dwellers, who lived together with tigers and other forest animals for centuries.

The recent years witnessed a sudden increase of ‘Tiger conservation awareness’ especially among urban upper and middle class Indians, promoted through prominent TV channels. Many self proclaimed voluntary tiger conservationists and NGOs have suddenly emerged. Most of their efforts are treating locals as enemies. They get all their luxurious and consumption lifestyle in the cities and blaming the forest dwellers and local farmers as destructors!

This tiger conservation programmes identified eco-tourism as a conservation method and made the traditional inhabitants as servants and suppliers of the so called ‘eco tourists’ and ‘professional wild lifers’. Eco-tourism expands the same consumption oriented models of mass tourism to ecologically sensitive areas. The impact is more serious because it happens in the most fragile environments and affects indigenous communities and their cultures.

Large commercial and other vested interests are bypassing the traditional and other rights of the local communities, especially the indigenous communities. By announcing new Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs) and protected areas, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is evicting people from the forest and from their ancestral land. Most of the CTHs are violating existing legislative frameworks which ensure community rights, decentralization of powers and people’s participation in governance.

For instance the announcement of new Critical Tiger Habitats clearly violates the Forest Right Act (The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006), a key piece of forest legislation which recognizes the rights of the forest-dwelling communities to their land and other resources which had been denied to them over decades as a result of the continuance of colonial forest laws in India. According to the act, the CTHs are to be notified through a public consultation with scientific evidence and opinion of experts with the consent of forest dwellers in the area with an agreed-upon relocation package. But these provisions are not followed and are bypassed by the authorities in the name of conservation.

The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996 is another law which is constantly violated in the process of tiger conservation. This is the law enacted by government of India to enable Gram Sabhas(village councils) to self govern their natural resources. The guidelines for CTH are generally in adherence to Wild Life Protection Act amendment of 2006 and Forest Right Act 2006, but the CTH notifications and implementations violate these laws and guidelines.

Increasing tiger interests!

In reality the forest rights implementation in India has become sluggish with the rampant violations of the approved procedures stated by the law, and the large-scale denial of rights, mostly by the forest bureaucracy. Recognition of community rights under the legislation is particularly being delayed or denied in protected areas and often more in CTHs. By the end of 2008, an area of 26,749 sq km was notified as CTH by 14 tiger states where there are at least 77,000 families living inside these tiger reserves. Only 3,000 families have been relocated till 2009. By 2010, the tiger forests had been expanded to 32,878 sq km of core area or CTH.The number of tiger reserves jumped from 28 to 41, now spread over 17 Indian states.

Forced evictions and relocations have either taken place or have been initiated in most of the tiger reserved areas. At the same time, large areas of forests were diverted for non-forestry purposes, which shows the double standards of conservation politics.

Who benefits?

Eco-tourism is a very strong component of any tiger reserve project in India. India's protected areas (PAs), especially the designated tiger reserves, are popular tourist destinations. Most of the tourists visiting these areas are high spending elite tourists. The majority of tourists are on their first visit, spending an average of US $600 on their visit and stays for 5 days. The numbers of visitors to these tiger reserves are found to be growing at the rate of 15 percent annually. This under regulated tourism and infrastructure development creates many problems to the wild life too. Construction of walls and tourist facilities are obstructing the free wildlife movement. This tourist infrastructure requires huge amounts of resources such as water and this creates severe water shortage in the summer for the wild life.

Heavy vehicular traffic is another serious concern. According to a study, more than 27,000 vehicles entered Kanha Tiger Reserve, North India in 2007-2008 and the tourism routes within the forest are long. The tour operators’ lobby is very strong in influencing government decisions and many of the renowned ‘tiger experts’ and ‘conservationists’ own or partner in resorts. Many of these experts are the great fans of the new combination of ecotourism and tiger conservation.

All these projects are being justified in the name of conservation and development and under the notion that tourism provides the economic imperative and the best reason for protecting tigers. But the real question is: Who really benefits from it and at what cost? A careful analysis of the existing realities and available studies reveals that this market oriented conservation is counterproductive and the benefits to local communities from this conservation business is very minimal or almost nil.

While hotels around tiger reserves make good profits, they pay very little as land tax to the gram panchayats, and many do not pay any.A study notes that tourism in the protected areas employs less than just one out of thousand of the employable population in the region. Of those who are employed, most are trained for menial jobs like gardening and housekeeping. People from outside are employed for well-paid jobs like chefs and managers. So the argument of local development through eco-tourism is a counterfeit one.

Another point of concern is the real estate boom facilitated by tourism development in these areas. Local people are selling their land to outsiders and moving further away from the park. Land holdings on the edge of the parks are being purchased by outsiders to construct new tourist facilities and land prices are going up rapidly. Hotel and resort owners are violating rules to cash in on the tiger passion. For example, the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve falls in the Schedule 5 Area, where tribal land cannot be sold to a non-tribal without the district collector’s permission. Yet, around 80 hectares, mostly the farmland, was sold to outsiders between 2002 and 2008. Allegations are that the land has been bought by hotels and resorts through illegal transactions.

Tour for tiger?

The tour operators are very powerful and their influential lobbying gets wholehearted support from the forest officials. An elitist conservation policy, which has so far targeted only the inhabitants and local population, has resulted in illegal encroachment and activities in the tiger reserves. Eco tourism in the name of conservation and local development is facilitating this pseudo conservationists business. Tiger conservation is a new form of colonialism and the officials forcefully evict people in many areas without proper scientific studies, or with the support of biased studies by well-known conservationist consultants. It is a new avenue of power through corruption for many of them.

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