Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Wildlife Tourism And Local Communities

Wildlife tourism though earlier considered to be the prerogative of elite has come far down the line. It has assimilated in its wake many fruitful aspects with the passage of time. Though still promoted with hiccups, and often seen in a narrow perspective, the industry has empowered local communities like none has.

It also augurs crucial foreign exchange through thousands of wildlife enthusiasts from overseas. Tiger tourism is in the wishlist of uncountable number of travellers all over the Globe. 

I have been visiting tiger reserves since more than three decades, and seen the positive. The ecosystems have grown to their completeness and round about holistic benefits have accrued. There have been a tremendous rise in converts as far as awareness of our environment is concerned. The reserves have also experienced a turn  around in animal populations (read bio-diversity). A new vocation has been generated in conservation research and skills of exploration i.e. guiding, birding, photography etc amidst the youth.

Though tourism is not contributing factor, at least not directly, but then safaris have become a learning experience for populations with no idea of how the ecosystems work, and how nature contributes to preservation of our immediate environment. The people who have worked hard to preserve our inheritance have brought about this turnaround.  
Tribal Family - Courtesy Neeraj Vegad 

On one sight of the big cats and other predators, the first impression that is done away with is the vermin concept. I too used to think of tigers and leopards as blood thirsty animals that would devour human beings on the first go. I now fear the ever burgeoning unruly traffic and hoodlums in our society a far greater threat than being accidentally mauled by wild animals. The activity has also brought forth the National Pride that we hold at our incredible inheritance,        

I remember witnessing my first tiger at a very young age. It was a dead tiger, it lay listless at peace in its final slumber. It was legal hunted at Nauradehi WLS in MP before the legislation, but still to me it appeared an unpardonable crime against the nature. I was too small to understand the implication of this heinous misdeed. The hunter moved amongst us...with his story of valour.. and had us running around him. This team of hunters visited us every year along with a wealthy relative far removed.  (sic).  The legislation put stop to this. 

Why I am writing about all this?

Well our impression about other life forms eventually shape our policies, and our attitude towards them. Today modern education has inculcated teachings about things precious to our environment, earlier it was not so. Contemporary conservation is based upon an equity...what we value, and the literature at our behest. India has been blessed with ancient conservation ethos but that has not proven to be enough...look where we stand today?    

In absence of (regulated) wildlife tourism, awareness about ecosystems would have moved back in to a deep recess. Our attitude towards wilderness would have been uncaring and drastic...well it stills is in case of many people. Secondly in a populist democracy hard facts have to be drained down the gullets of those who administer this country...with syrup. 

It is the hotel/tourism industry which has been at the forefront of local employment apart from the administration...namely the forest department. The work experience and training imparted have been contributing factor towards empowerment. This has subsequently resulted in greater job opportunities and hence better standard of living. Such initiative has been taken by Kanha administration in conjunction with an NGO as well, and trainees are finding job opportunities in the industry all over. There may be many more such examples.   These are aspects that are rarely talked about and little appreciated.

Most of the employees are locals who have the developed skill to work in many faculties. This has come about with time and tourism. With experience and skill development they have become part of vocations and small  businesses as well. And some in tourism industry do distribute fruits of labour towards local infrastructure in form of donations or contributions.  

Benefits have accrued to the displaced lot as well as those living in the periphery.  From being in far flung remote areas they been connected by the hospitality industry with the mainstream and contribute to Nation development greatly.     

Tiger Conservation The Buck Stops Here

The passing of legislation (Wildlife Protect Act 1972) and creation of protected areas, and the Project Tiger Program were milestones that laid the foundation of nature conservation in India. For the first time after independence the country had a serious look at the status of its wilderness. 

Subsequently a series of corrective measures were taken. Tiger was at the helm of conservative initiatives. The beleaguered animal had lost lot of ground, thanks to indiscriminate hunting, poaching and extensive loss of habitat.

The creation of protected areas was a master stroke, especially the inviolate core zones. In the core zones no human habitation except that of the forest staff is allowed, all activities relating to forest produce do not take place. As a result the ecosystems have vastly improved. The outer ring of the forests contains the buffer zone which is an amalgamation of forests patches, villages, fields and public road network. The buffer forests are patchily linked with  the regular forests, status of which is anybody's guess. 

Tiger Image Courtesy: Mukund Yadav

With proper initiatives, the the big cat has gained some ground in the recent times. Many well managed parks have seen a rise in population. But with the success have arisen problems galore. 

The buffer zone is inept in containing the swelling population of big cats and the prey. There is a regular decline in the forest cover due to illegal logging which has reduced the habitats into fragments often degraded, some of which are completely nonviable.      

The human population in India is swelling here like anywhere else and this is hampering the movement of wild animals. The extreme biotic pressure is weighing down on the wild  inhabitants of the ecosystems. The loss of space as degradation increases is apparent, so is altered behaviour seen among the big cats.    

If we have to see a constant rise in population of tertiary consumers space is vital. The maximum number of conflicts with humans occur in the buffer. Animals do not understand the concept of protected area, for them any good habitat is worth moving into. The presence of humans in large numbers and their activities are discouraging for a tiger seeking new pastures. 

The tiger is sensitive to human presence like the hard ground swamp deer. Though the big cat survives along with humans its breeding and life span are reduced. The conflict amplifies whence it is forced to prey of livestock.  In many of our tiger reserves a large number of livestock are regularly preyed upon, and besides the human antipathy generated the big cat becomes susceptible to disease transmission and poaching as well.         

Animals have been electrocuted, snared, shot and exterminated by poisoning their kill. (Sometimes exterminated legally). Even if some PA's may not be under the scanner of organised poachers opportunists are present everywhere and the cases are on the rise.     

Hence if we wish to increase tiger population in India, we have to conserve effectively all the remaining habitats irrespective of their status. Though it is impossible to create extensive inviolate grounds, conservative initiatives need a paradigm shift as far as human inhabited habitats are concerned.  

Some of the macro solutions could be control and reduction of human populations, alternative to pastoral lifestyle, alternative fuel supply, restriction on construction and commercialisation. Many laudable steps have already been taken but require a greater impetus. In time to come more solutions will emerge.   

Wildlife tourism in buffer zones has been lauded by many conservationists. They believe greater protection measures will augur as a result of increased importance of the status of habitats there. A rise in equity is certain to increase the importance of our wilderness hence well managed tourism does play a part.       

(But safaris in the buffer zones are a poor alternative to the experience in the core. Hence there are few takers.The habitats here do offer good bird watching experience.)