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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Green brigade hails SC order on tiger reserves

Neha Shukla, TNN | Jul 26, 2012, 04.38AM IST LUCKNOW: The Supreme Court's interim ban on tourism activities in the core areas of tiger reserves has been hailed by the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF). The environment and forest minister Jayanthi Natarajan, while welcoming the SC order, said she will "personally write to all the chief ministers of the tiger states to follow the directives". The officials, neither in the Central ministry nor the state forest departments, though are guarded in their comments and term the order as "highly sensitive". A senior official in the Central ministry said, "Conservationists are extremely happy but private tour operators are very much disappointed." Following the SC order, entry of tourists will be banned in the protected areas of all 39 tiger reserves in the country. The final order will come on August 22. UP forest officials refused to comment till they see the order's copy. "So far we have only heard or read about the order, let's see it (order's copy) first," said a senior official. The ban will, however, not have an immediate impact on Dudhwa reserve as it is currently closed for tourism. Besides, Dudhwa is not a significant tiger reserve in terms of revenue collection. But, the ban's impact will be seen in the national parks like Bandipur, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Ranthambore, Kaziranga and Kalakad-Mundanthurai, which earn huge revenue from tiger tourism. Though officials in the Madhya Pradesh forest department refused to comment on the repercussions of the order, they did not deny having a high tourist turnout during the season. The state earns close to Rs 15 crore by way of entry fee only. The entry fee, on an average, is not more than Rs 22 for the national parks. "Add to it the amount spent by a tourist to buy a tour package to the state's tiger reserves, the tourism earnings easily shoot up to Rs 150-200 crore," said a private tour operator. The state forest department not only uses the earning to manage the national parks but also shares it with the state. Karnataka and Rajasthan also earn considerable revenue through tiger tourism. The forest officials in Rajasthan forest department refused to comment on the ban. The private tour operators in wildlife reserves are mostly small time businessmen. The Travel Operators for Tiger in India, which is an association of private tour operators specialised in wildlife and eco-tourism, said there must be around 800 private tour operators in the country working for wildlife tourism. In most of the cases, tour operators are locals owning a lodge and running a food-joint. The ban on tourism in the core area will allow tourists to go till the buffer zone only. And since tiger sightings are rare in the buffer areas, the ban might dissuade tourists from visiting the national parks. The ban will not only hit the tour operators but also the local people as well who earn their livelihood from tourism. The bigger groups, however, will not be affected by the ban. "The only hope is if the state forest departments develop buffer zones to the level of core areas," said Vishal Singh, director, Travel Operators for Tiger in India. India is one of the most popular destinations for wildlife and eco-tourism in the world after Africa and South America. Foreign tourists also visit tiger reserves in India to see, apart from tigers, birds, swamp deer and other wildlife animals. India is the only country after Thailand and Siberia to have tigers, but from the point of view of tourism it scores over other countries. Tour operators say the states should replicate the model followed abroad wherein tourism revenue is used to conserve wildlife. It's a fact that biotic pressure on the national parks and forests in India is increasing, but model put in place by countries like Rwanda can be replicated. Rwanda allows tourism inside its forest area where tourists come to see Gorillas. The country allows a specific number of tourists inside the forest area and for a limited time. Besides, armed guards accompany tourists in the forests to prevent man-animal conflict. The country charges 750 US dollars per tourist for the visit. And despite restrictions, the number of tourists visiting forests has increased. The earnings are used for forest and wildlife conservation. India can adopt a similar model. The officers in MoEF, however, do not buy the argument. "The ban on tourism in the core area is nothing but a hype," said a senior officer. "The Supreme Court has only interpreted the law. It has enforced Section 38V of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which asks the states to ensure the inviolate status of the core/critical tiger habitat. The main objective of creating a tiger reserve is to conserve tigers, tourism is only a by-product," the officer added. Meanwhile, in the first major impact of the order, tour operators are preparing to make refunds to tourists who may cancel the bookings to the tiger reserves.

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