THE Rajasthan Forest Department is planning to throw open the Ranthambore National Park to tourists for the entire day — and night — in a move that wildlife activists say flouts “the basic principles of tiger conservation”. The park is currently open to tourists for six hours every day — three hours every morning and evening — from October to June.
Forest Minister Rajkumar Rinwa confirmed that two proposals, to open the park for tourists through the day and conduct night visits, were discussed during a recent meeting of the state wildlife board — the period will remain the same. But activists said they would approach the Supreme Court to block the move, saying it violates the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) guidelines issued to states on directions from the apex court.
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The guidelines were formulated after the Supreme Court asked the Centre to notify eco-tourism norms, which formed the basis for it to lift the interim ban on tourism activities in tiger reserves. The Supreme Court had also mandated all state governments to adhere to these guidelines that require them to not open more than 20 per cent of the core tiger habitat for tourism.
“Both proposals are pending. Some countries have night tourism at tiger reserves. We will not allow tourism in more than 20 per cent of the core area,” said Minister Rinwa. Chief Wildlife Warden G Vishvanath Reddy said the increased hours would not go against the NTCA guidelines. “Tourist activity will still be regulated, along specific routes and with a limited number of vehicles,” said Reddy.
But wildlife activist Ajay Dube, whose petition challenging tourism inside tiger reserves is pending before the Supreme Court, said, “This is the first time that such a move is being proposed in the country. It will violate NTCA guidelines on the carrying capacity of vehicles, among other things. We will bring this to the Supreme Court’s notice through an intervening application to our petition.”
Rajesh Gopal, former member secretary of NTCA and general secretary of Global Tiger Forum, an inter-governmental organisation, said that the move was “clearly a violation of what all state governments had promised to do in 2012, based on which the Supreme Court lifted the ban on tourism”.
“They can’t take such decisions unilaterally after agreeing to comply with NTCA guidelines. It’s against the basic principles of tiger conservation. Why would the government want to give priority to tourism in a tiger reserve? It’s not like the Taj Mahal or Amber Fort, where your objective is to gain footfalls. The objective is to conserve tigers,” said Gopal.
Last week, the state anti-corruption bureau had raided the reserve and found more than the permitted number of vehicles and tourists inside. Last year, the park authorities faced flak for shifting the tiger tagged as T24 from the wild to captivity, with activists accusing the Forest Department of succumbing to pressure from the region’s thriving tourism industry.