Tiger reserved and how

By Kumar Sambhav S

Business in Khatia village on the border of Kanha national park in Madhya Pradesh starts as early as 2.30 am. Tour operators crowd the yet-to-open ticket counter at the entry gate. Gypsies carrying drowsy tourists start queuing up, jostling to be ahead of each other. Restaurants and shops open to serve the tourists. As soon as dawn breaks, Khatia resembles a crowded marketplace. All this is to ensure that tourists do not return disappointed. They must see a tiger.

It is important to enter the reserve early. If a ‘tiger show’ happens only a limited number of tourists are allowed. On days a tiger is sighted, the forest department employs mahouts to take tourists of the first 20-30 vehicles on their elephants and track the big cat.

Kanha, which has one of the highest density of tigers, was among the first nine national parks in the country to be declared a tiger reserve in 1973 under the Project Tiger. As the tiger became the biggest tourist attraction of modern times, Kanha, like other tiger reserves, saw an unprecedented growth in tourism. The number of visitors increased from 1,06,000 in 2006-2007 to 1,75,000 in 2010-2011 – a growth of over 60 per cent. During the period, the number of hotels increased from 30 to 62.

State governments are promoting tourism in protected areas as eco-tourism because it earns them revenue. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has declared four of its tiger reserves as eco-tourism destinations. But without any regulations, the booming tourism poses a serious threat to the dwindling number of big cats as well as their ecology.

Most of the hotels in Kanha are located within half a kilometre of the reserve boundary, along the Banjar river. This restricts the wildlife’s access to the river and has fragmented the critical wildlife corridor between Kanha and the Pench Tiger Reserve, 180 km away. ‘It used to be a live corridor. Wild animals would travel from one end of the corridor to the other and come back. We have seen radio-collared tigers doing this. But we don’t see much wildlife in the corridor now,’ says J S Chauhan, field director of Kanha Tiger Reserve.

Senior forest officials like Chauhan admit that what is happening in tiger reserves now is not eco-tourism, but economic tourism.

For instance, Kanha allows 280 vehicles a day. The National Tiger Conservation Authority estimates that Kanha can sustain 40-55 tourist vehicles per day. ‘Tourism in tiger reserve is demand-driven. Tourists want air-conditioners and swimming pools,’ says a naturalist requesting not to be named. He works with a resort owned by a renowned hotel chain. ‘None of the hotels uses renewable energy sources. My resort uses hundreds of litres of kerosene in generators to produce electricity.’

In 2009, 48 resorts in Kanha extracted 5,40,000 litres of groundwater per day, notes a yet-to-be published study by a forest official in Madhya Pradesh. That year the hotels consumed 302 tonnes of firewood, 42 per cent of which came from forests in the buffer zone. Around 40 per cent of hotels in Kanha used wood-based boilers that year.

The situation is equally precarious in other tiger reserves. Krithi Karanth of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, and Ruth Defries of Columbia University in the US surveyed 10 protected areas across the country. There were swimming pools and water fountains in the hotels and resorts in arid regions like Kanha, Ranthambore and Pench. Tourist facilities are often located near villages where people have limited drinking water facilities and grow rain-fed crops, the study notes.Water shortage in summers requires the forest department to supplement water bodies inside the protected areas.

While the resorts make good profits consuming the local resources, they hardly share the profit with the communities, as recommended.

The Indian National Wildlife Action Plan states that benefits from eco-tourism must be shared with the communities. So did the Tiger Task Force Report in 2005, which recommended that hotels and resorts on the periphery must contribute 30 per cent of their turnover to the communities and the reserve management.

The forest official’s study found that the combined profit of the 48 hotels around Kanha in 2009 was Rs 22.45 crore. But the hotels paid only Rs 65,807 as land tax to the gram panchayats. One-third of the hotels did not pay any tax.

Last year, the gram panchayat of Mocha village in the buffer zone of Kanha decided to increase the land tax and enquired the hotels about the value of their properties. ‘None of the hotels but one responded,’ says panchayat secretary Santkumar Markam. The study by Karanth and Defries notes tourism in the protected areas employs less than one in 1,000 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.

The Madhya Pradesh forest official’s survey estimates that 40-50 per cent of the total spending by a tourist goes to hotels and resorts, while 28 per cent of it goes to the communities and the rest to the tiger reserve.

Hotel and resort owners are bending all rules to cash in on the tiger frenzy. The buffer zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve falls in the Schedule Five area, where tribal land cannot be sold to a non-tribal without the district collector’s permission. Yet around 80 hectares (ha), mostly farmland, was sold to outsiders between 2002 and 2008, notes the forest official’s survey report. Allegations are that the land has been bought by hotels and resorts through benami transactions.

Most residents are duped to sell land at rates much lower than the market price. When enquired about the land price around Kanha, property agents said land belonging to general category costs Rs 25-30 lakh per ha, while that of a tribal can be bought immediately at Rs 5-7 lakh per ha.

The communities benefit little from tourism, even as they face the brunt of conservation measures. So far, 28 villages have been relocated from the core zone of Kanha to give more space to tigers. Seven more are set to be shifted out. Several relocated families allege they have not received compensation yet. Pancham Singh Chachand of Manji Tola village is one of them. His family was relocated from Orai village in the core zone in 1974; he lost four hectares of land. ‘Tourists come to see tigers where we once lived but we are struggling for basic rights,’ he says. The village has several resorts but does not have power supply.

Resentment is brewing among residents like Chachand. On 30 April, around 250 tribals and forest dwellers staged a protest against the forest department at the gate of Kanha demanding compensation for their displacement. They also demanded implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that recognises their rights over forest resources.

To ensure that tourism in protected areas helps generate livelihood for communities, while conserving forests, the union ministry of environment and forests has finalised the eco-tourism guidelines, in the works since June last year . On 10 July, the ministry submitted the guidelines to the Supreme Court, which is hearing a public interest petition that seeks a ban on tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves.

On arrangement with the Down to Earth magazine.
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