Forests of the night

If the SC bans tourists from core areas,it will rob the tiger of its eyes and ears

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Published: July 27, 2012 12:16:43 am

The Supreme Court’s ban on tourism in core wildlife areas has jolted the very idea of tiger conservation. If it is implemented,all of India’s tiger sanctuaries will become the preserve of a few government servants,who have an extremely poor record of accountability. In one stroke,the SC judgment has robbed tourism of one of its most valued attractions. It is sad that those whose tax remittances have funded conservation will be deprived of the right to see the tiger where it has the greatest probability of being sighted.

Ironically,the ban is least guaranteed to achieve what it aims to — saving the tiger. The animal will lose the human eyes and ears that serve as its most conscientious monitors. The attention it gets from tourists has also forced the country’s generally lackadaisical tiger conservation establishment to do its bit. If the ban comes to pass,it will not be long before the people of India lose interest in the tiger — there is no grief for what one can’t see. It would be the most unforgivable folly to rob the tiger of its most ardent and vociferous supporters. The

SC judgment is apparently in tune with the new tiger protection regime,but the idea and philosophy of banning tourism in core areas is both fallacious and self-defeating.

If the situation is so alarming that tourism must be banned to protect the tiger,then people must know what data the SC has been provided with to buttress its ruling. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has made no bones about the fact that it supports the idea of taking tourists out of core areas. However,of late,it is believed to have grudgingly agreed to keep some of those areas open. The SC will consider that on August 28,when the next hearing takes place. So the jury is still out on the people’s right to see tiger in core areas. In any case,does the tiger protection establishment now accept that it has failed in conservation efforts all these years and wants to try banning tourists in a desperate,last-ditch effort to save the big cat?

The NTCA’s tiger philosophy has often been a bundle of contradictions. Along with a few tiger experts,it has always advocated the source-sink theory. According to advocates of this theory,tiger habitat is divided into two water-tight compartments — source and sink. The source is the core area where their numbers are stable (since they are well-protected) and where more of them can be accommodated. The sink is the area outside the core,where they are unlikely to survive. Many tiger watchers on the ground have ridiculed this theory,citing many viable,self-sustaining tiger populations in non-protected areas outside the core. Here are two questions for the NTCA and its advisors: first,if you think that the core has a stable tiger population despite decades of tourism then why this alarm now? Second,if there are no viable tiger populations in the outlying areas — now called the buffers — what purpose will these areas serve for tourism?

Many conservationists shudder at the thought of what will happen to the tiger reserves in the absence of tourists. Forest departments across the country have always been low on credibility. There is evidence of how reserve managers — from the top to the bottom of the official hierarchy — have been negligent and connived with poachers to rob India of hundreds of its tigers. There are also examples of viable wildlife populations outside these so-called protected areas,in spite of there being no protection regime in place there. So,if we don’t need tourism,do we need the forest establishment?

Let’s not forget that it was criminal neglect by the forest department,and not tourism,that was responsible for the disappearance of tigers from Sariska,Ranthambore and Panna. If the department could be so lax in spite of so many eyes watching them,it is anybody’s guess what will happen now that those eyes have been forced shut.

We may now see the annual ritual of the tiger census conducted in total isolation by an establishment low on credibility. It even discourages NGOs from participating in the new,scientifically rigorous mark recapture and line transect method of conducting the census. Only the forest department staff and “experts” will now conduct it and the general tax-payer will not be able to verify those claims on the ground. So next year,don’t be surprised on being told that your being made persona non-grata in India’s protected wildlife reserves has led to a robust addition to its tiger population.

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