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Monday, August 27, 2012

Andhra Pradesh cool to tiger tourism ban debate

Sudipta Sengupta, TNN | Aug 27, 2012, 03.38AM IST HYDERABAD: Hitting headlines and engaging environmentalists in unending debates is the Union ministry of environment & forest's (MoEF) flip-flop over banning tourism in core areas of India's tiger reserves. But back home in Andhra Pradesh these goings-on have failed to even remotely perturb officials of the forest department who maintain that the ban has little or no relevance in the state. Incidentally, AP houses India's largest tiger reserve, the Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR), which is spread over an area of 4,500 square kilometres. The tiger count here is pegged between 53 and 67 at present. The official indifference is largely rooted in the complete absence of tourism activity in and around NSTR. Barring two vehicles deployed for a mini safari from Farahabad into the forest, the tiger reserve has no other tourist packages on offer. But, following the SC ban, even this service has been suspended. The Mallela Theertham waterfall in the middle of dense growth, though still open to public, continues to register negligible footfall. The average annual count of tourists to these sites, maintained by local tribals under the state's community-based eco-tourism (CBET) programme, is just about 3,000-4,000. Miles away from the 'den', even the peripheral pocket of Mannanur (check-post located at the entrance to the forest) receives only a handful of tourists at the 10 government cottages available there. "All of them are pilgrims either returning from or on their way to the Srisailam temple. A stop in the forest is just incidental," said Farida Tampal, state director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-India). While Tampal was for a ban on over-commercialisation of tiger reserves, she feels that a 'controlled-tourism' concept should be implemented to make people aware of AP's wildlife wealth. "Camps and tours in the peripheral region might not be a bad idea. Right now, the NSTR is completely off the tourism radar," she added. The reserve's core area covers close to 3,500sqkm with a buffer zone of 1,100sqkm. Forest officials, however, aren't complaining. The missing tourists, they argue, help preserve the sanctity of NSTR. "The tiger reserve has little scope for tourism owing to its rocky terrain. The probability of sighting tigers here is very low. Why would tourists want to come here?" questioned Rahul Pandey, field director, NSTR. That such limited access to the forest deters revenue collection as well is a problem that does not seem to bother the department either. "The government does not earn even a penny from this tiger reserve. Both Mallela Theertam and Mannanur are managed by locals under CBET. The revenue generated from these places is shared among them," Pandey said. That the collections are abysmally low, estimated to be at around Rs 15 lakh per year, is another story. But while the state government department, irrespective of the interim ban, insists that it has no plans to boost tourism in NSTR, some environmentalists seem to believe otherwise. They say that forest officials had been engaged in drawing up an eco-tourism project within the reserve's core area prior to the SC ruling. "The project has obviously been stalled now. But depending upon the court's final verdict, it might resurface again," the wildlife expert said on condition of anonymity.

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