When I first started my life with tigers 37 years ago it was as a tourist. I visited the heart of Ranthambore and saw little as tigers,if they were around,just hid themselves in the forest and ignored the visitor. The late Fateh Singh Rathore was the warden of the park and used his understanding of tigers to ensure that some areas within remained closed and others open in a rotatory fashion,which ensured peace for breeding tigers. As the park did well,Fateh took great pride in showing it to every visitor and tourist who came,including Rajiv Gandhi with his family and friends,and believe it or not Bill Clinton and his friends. After all,they were all tourists searching for that magnificent tiger. For years,life went on and as tourist numbers grew so did tiger numbers. In fact,all my colleagues started their lives as tourists to national parks,irrespective of what they feel about it today. We all know that forest lands are owned by the states revenue departments and are in the custody of the forest department for safekeeping. Their governance is a state subject.
India has more than 14 types of climatic forest,from Ranthambores dry deciduous belts to the mangrove delta of the Sundarbans near the Bay of Bengal. The diversity is intense and no one national guideline can work for all either in terms of management or tourism. Realising this,wildlife officers of the state always created their own site-specific guidelines. This was just commonsense. Many of our tiger reserves had mini cores and No-Go areas for visitors,which changed yearly depending on an areas needs. Till the 21st century,Delhi did not interfere much.
A core is supposed to be a small part of the whole. As far as the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) is concerned,the core or critical tiger habitat (CTH) is the whole,and by suggesting that tourism be phased out of this area,they in effect suggest that there will be no tourism at all! Cores or CTHs came into being with the NTCA in 2006 through amendments in the Wildlife Protection Act. Declaration of cores was done in a rush in order to insulate our tiger areas against the Forest Rights Act (FRA),which came into being before the end of 2007. So the Core/ CTH concept had to be completed before the birth of the FRA.
The NTCA was very proud that literally overnight 30,000 to 35,000 square kilometres got declared as CTH,making it very difficult for anyone to do damage to it. This CTH or core area included the best and the worst of forest lands. A new core had been created overnight with little basis in science. In Ranthambore,Kailadevi Sanctuary became a core critical habitat encompassing 595 sq km with one tiger,25,000 people,40,000 livestock and 44 villages. This makes up 53 per cent of Ranthambores CTH.
I supported the process as it would save this tiger turf from the ugly horrors of mining and other forms of exploitation. No one imagined that the NTCA would phase out visitation,be it for tigers or temples. In fact,most forest buffers became cores. This is the only reason why today it is so difficult to find any forest land as a buffer as every inch has been put into the core. Now,mostly private lands surround the core. The core was not meant to be an area in which you phase out tourism. It was meant to deal with the threat of the FRA and issues like mining,timber-felling,road-building and so much more that can undermine the sanctity of the tigers home. This issue must be clearly understood.
If such decisions of phasing out tourism from cores were ever taken in Africa,the economies of many countries like Kenya,Botswana,Tanzania,Rwanda,Uganda,Zambia would be severely affected. All over the world,billions of dollars are turned over by wildlife tourism and,today,large amounts from that go to local people. In the Masai Mara,more then $40 million go to the local Masai councils each year. If for some administrative reason all this were stopped,local livelihoods would be wiped out and poaching gangs would have a free for all. Also,the biggest organisations that fund wildlife would close down as,if people cannot see wild animals,they will not donate to save them. I have traversed every corner of Africa and seen some remarkable models of governance where the beneficiaries are locals and the wildlife around. Large chunks of land have been regenerated for wildlife. Gorillas in Rwanda were saved by sensible tourism. Lions,leopards and cheetahs have benefited enormously as well.
If wildlife tourism today is in a mess,it is because of those who make the rules and implement the same all over India the forest department. The visitor only follows what is prescribed by the government of the day. We need to reinvent good wildlife tourism but we also need to reinvent the forest department. We have to imbibe and learn from all parts of the globe the best practices for innovative tourism and for this we have to have a humility in our mission. This is a moment that is,first of all,a wake-up call for our bureaucracy,our conservationists and our wildlife scientists who will have to change course and be more open and flexible to new ideas and models of tourism. Tourism does not kill tigers and did not kill the tigers of Sariska and Panna. The non-functioning mechanisms of governance did. We need to deal with the horrors of governance first. Visitors to new frontiers made the history of the world and this is how many were inspired in their lifes missions. That process cannot stop.
After 37 years of working with tigers and wildlife and serving at least 200 committees of both Central and state governments,including five years on the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court,I am convinced that sensible tourism in all our wildlife areas will be critical to saving them. The beneficiaries of this must be the locals and the wildlife. Since both wildlife and tourism are state subjects,the states must make innovative guidelines for each site and with genuine partnerships with both locals and all those connected to the wildlife tourism industry. New models that engage the locals with tourism will go a long way to generate income for them and mitigate conflict between the park and its inhabitants. It is the states with the stakeholders that must decide the Go and No-Go areas for tourism,and this issue has to be separated from what has become the CTH/ Core of tiger reserves today. The CTHs/ Cores were never meant to be linked to tourism and visitation of any kind. The forest department cannot save tigers on its own. Only when civil society in village,town and city partners them will tigers be safe. The wildlife experience that inspires so many must go on. Travel is the birthright of every homo sapien on the planet,be it for tigers or butterflies or temples. I was a boy of 10 when I started visiting the wildlife refuges of India. I cannot deny that right to my children and grandchildren on whose shoulders will rest the future of Indias wildlife.
Thapar is the author of 24 books on tigers and Indian wildlife