State Finance and Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, in his budget speech on Wednesday, announced the allocation of Rs 191 crore for the development of wildlife reserves in the state, including Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), on the lines of international forest tourism destinations like Masai Mara, a country park in Kenya. The other national parks picked up for the project include the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve and the Gorewada Zoo.
Newsline asks experts about the feasibility of developing such a tourism centre in the national park in Borivali, which is a rare national park inside the city’s geographical boundaries, and is already reeling under pressure from human interference in terms of illegal encroachments and illicit liquor brewing gangs, coupled with the complex man-animal conflict along the fringes.
Environmentalist with Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG)
While Masai Mara has thousands of square kilometres of plains, the SGNP is surrounded by multi-storey buildings with 1,000 times the population. The forest department often mixes eco-tourism, which means minimal impact on ecology and living with tribals, and wildlife tourism, which is taking a Gypsy and trying to spot animals.
In the SGNP, because of the hilly terrain, no jeeps could ferry people around. Unregulated tourism suffocates wildlife in Ranthambore and Tadoba, where jeeps block wildlife on spotting them. The national park is already saturated with picnickers and we should not add to the problems.
Wildlife biologist, SPROUTS Environment Trust
The African eco-tourism at Masai Mara is based out of huge expanse of space and has highly-trained officials and also retains the tribes, who are involved in protecting the forest. In contrast, the SGNP has a hilly terrain and is under severe stress from illegal construction along fringes and a severe shortage of staff to man the entire national park. Moreover, large portions of the SGNP are no-go areas because of transmission lines and the lakes that are sources of drinking water for the city.
Money, instead, should be utilised in training foresters and securing the park by making it a better habitat for the free-roaming animals like leopards and deer. On the one hand, we allow degradation of buffer areas like Aarey and allow mining projects and other industries to come up in close proximity of national parks, and on the other hand, we want to develop eco-tourism spots when the main function of these national parks is to provide animals a safe place and not entertainment for humans.
An ecologist who has been working on the human-leopard conflict issue since 2003
In one way, this announcement seems nice as it may help improve facilities at the national park and also regulate movement of people in the park, who at present cause tremendous stress on the eco-system because of littering and noise. If a safari is planned, the fact that leopards are extremely intelligent animals and have a record of escaping from zoos from across the world should be taken into account.
However, seeing the tremendous progress the forest department has made in the state, especially in the eco-tourism development at Tadoba, these funds, if utilised well, can be a boon for the SGNP. These funds should ensure that if the national park is thrown open to more people, then regulated tourism with trained guides should be the priority.
Environmentalist and a researcher with Observer Research Foundation
The landscape at SGNP is very different from the Masai Mara topography and SGNP’s size is a piddly 100 sq km. A national park, by definition, is meant for the protection of animals and limiting human interference. So, by extending eco-tourism activities in a national park as per the finance minister’s plan goes against the fundamental laws of our country.
The stress on animals and forest officials on just Mahashivratri, which sees thousands of visitors, in a small area of the national park, should be enough to show how harmful opening up more of the national park will be. Let’s try and protect the national park from the pressures of illegal construction first before coming up with such grand but slightly ill-conceived plans.
Wildlife expert working predominantly at SGNP
While Masai Mara has a plain landscape and is a place where one can see a lot of wild animals when on a safari, the SGNP is hilly and the only animals that are easily spotted in the wild are birds, butterflies, deer and langurs. Leopards are nocturnal, secretive and solitary animals, who are hard to spot, even for research. Despite their numbers, it is highly impossible to spot a free-roaming leopard at the SGNP.
This plan may work well for Tadoba, which has many more wild animals who are more easy to spot. Besides, SGNP authorities already struggle to manage the regular crowd, and langurs and deer can easily be spotted at the currently accessible parts of the forest, as well as along the fringes in Mulund and Aarey.