By Dr. Suhas Kumar
My study –”An Assessment of Ecotourism Strategies and Practices in Tiger Reserves of Madhya Pradesh” – is an attempt to explore the ongoing tourism development and practices in the tiger reserves. This study is about understanding the place, role and objectives of tourism within the goals of management of the tiger reserves and analyzing the policies, and the legal framework that allows visitation within them. The study strives to look into the current planning process for managing tourism in tiger reserves and assess the ongoing tourism management practices in these protected areas about the major goals of conserving tiger and its habitats, supporting local communities and creating awareness among the public at large.
The primary data collected in the field covered a range of all possible stakeholders involved in development and management of tourism as well as those who are supposed to be impacted – both positively and negatively – by tourism development in and around Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. The stake holders covered are – hoteliers, Dhaba (eatery) owners, field directors of the tiger reserves and management staff, visitors, guides, taxi drivers, and local people including those who have sold their lands to hoteliers – The secondary data was collected from all five tiger reserves as well as the revenue department. Primary and secondary data was collected on tourism management practices, regulations, policy, staff deployment, dependence of local people on tiger reserves’ resources, conflicts and relationships, ecodevelopment inputs in villages, park development fund and its utilization, status of prey base, populations estimates of endangered and important prey species, tiger mortality data, offences committed by tourists taxi- drivers and guides, forest and wildlife crime data, corridors and dispersal area, threats to tiger reserves and management constraints, relationship with private and other public sectors involved in tourism and land transaction data.
Analysis of existing policies indicate that content wise they largely conform to the basic principles of ecotourism, but most lack clarity on the issues of providing directions for fostering feasible and practical strategies for facilitating participation of local people in ecotourism ventures and flow of benefits of ecotourism to host communities, conservation of natural resources including wildlife and their habitats, sharing of benefits among stakeholders and sustainable partnerships. The current laws, rules and statutory instructions also don’t cover these critical aspects of ecotourism and their effective implementation.
Analysis of current management practices revealed high density tourist visitation within core areas of the reserves – in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench tiger reserves. Increase in number of management staff is not commensurate with the rapid growth in visitation in Kanha, Pench, and Bandhavgarh. No comprehensive tourism management plan existed in either of the tiger reserves studied. Carrying capacity limits are arbitrary and unscientific. There were no well set and prescribed mechanisms to monitor of possible impacts of tourism on tiger reserves. Most of the staff is untrained and aged. Protection and management staff is diverted to manage tourism. There is no control over land use around the peripheral areas of the tiger reserve, and most of the development is incompatible with the goals of the buffer zone management. Visitors’ feedback is neither gathered nor used for planning and improvement. Efforts and strategy to involve and benefit local people in tourism enterprise are absent. Interpretation programme is not coherent enough to become useful. Staff lacks the understanding of the significance of awareness programme. The study also revealed that there is no outreach programme for villagers.
As a part of the study, the relation between villager and park was also studied. All the tourism-related fees and tariff levied by the tiger reserves are deposited in the fund called Vikas Nidhi or Development Fund created for each protected area. An analysis was done using the data on development fund generation since its inception in the year1996-97 to find out the extent of share of this resource has reached the local people who pay the price of conserving wildlife everyday in terms of denial of access to forest resources, crop loss, cattle kills and injury and death of villagers caused by wild animals. The analysis revealed that Kanha tiger reserve was better than all other reserves in sharing the financial benefits of ecotourism with local people as it has spent 16.35 % of the development fund on ecodevelopment works and 4.03 % as yearly payments to ecodevelopment committees, Bandhavgarh spent 9.63 % on ecodevelopment works and 3.97 % on making yearly payments to the EDCs. Pench, Panna, and Satpura have contributed nothing out of the revenue generated from tourism towards village development or as a monetary contribution to the ecodevelopment committees.
This study reveals that the ongoing practices and management of tourism in the reserves, especially Kanha, Bandhavgarh, and Pench make tourism incompatible and detrimental to the primary objective conserving tiger. At present tourism in tiger reserves doesn’t follow the principles or show the characteristics of Ecotourism. In the absence of unambiguous policies and regulations to protect environment, land, natural resources and interests of local people the tourism-related development in the buffer zone of the tiger reserves has exploded into ‘Mass tourism.’ It is also evident that the benefits, as this study reveals, are small for the local people as well as for the tiger reserves and have been offset by the losses from tourism that accrue to the local people and the tiger reserves.
This study confirms that rapid growth in visitor numbers in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench tiger reserves and the resultant crowd, noise, and litter is eroding the very sense of wilderness that visitors long to experience. On the other hand, unplanned large scale construction of luxury resorts, hotels, and dhabas along the periphery of the core zones hamper free movement of tigers by blocking open spaces thus adversely impacting the corridor functions of buffer forests. The hotels continue to pollute the local environs with waste, deplete groundwater resources and the buffer zone forests to meet their energy demands. Benefits of tourism that accrue to local people are hardly discernible as only a trickle of the visitors’ spending gets into the local economy, and the direct employment that a handful of locals could eke out in a flourishing tourism business doesn’t seem to provide them any long-term economic security. The positive signs are that there is still enough scope for redeeming the situation and bring prosperity to the locals and enforce some discipline in the ongoing haywire tourism development in fragile and sensitive tiger reserves. A large number of hoteliers have expressed willingness to contribute to the development of local villages and share profits with village institutions.
The study further reveals that there is an urgent need to come up with a comprehensive National and state policy for Ecotourism as there is nothing worthwhile at present to lean on to ensure effective implementation of ecotourism. To be effective, an Ecotourism Policy must clearly outline the roles of all stakeholders, opportunities and options that may be available to locals to participate in tourism, suggest the legislations that may be invoked to safeguard the environment, and the ecology in and around the tiger reserves, indicate actions to regulate land use in dispersal areas and corridors, The policy must also enunciate criteria and standards that may be used in or around tiger reserves for selection of sites for tourism infrastructure and also for design of buildings, use of ground water, energy conservation, water harvesting and recycling, waste minimization and disposal, which should, in the course of time, become the basis for accreditation/certification of tour operators and hoteliers.
This study has given good insights into the tourism management issues and the type and extent of the problems that the tiger reserves are facing and would face in future. On the basis of this knowledge, an attempt is being made to suggest a framework for managing tourism in the tiger reserves. The model that has emerged from this study explains the interventions and linkages that must be developed to streamline tourism in a way that it infuses sustainability into the unsustainable mass tourism development in the surrounds of the tiger reserve to become responsible and sustainable nature-based enterprise and also suggests modifications in the wildlife tourism practices within the tiger reserves to assimilate the characteristics of ecotourism.
How legitimate is tourism in Tiger Reserves?
A tiger reserve has mainly two management units – the core and the buffer and both has different sets of goals and objectives. The objective of managing the core is to conserve the species and areas of crucial conservation importance, while the buffer is managed to reconcile the conflicting interests of resource use by forest dependent local people and wildlife conservation. The purpose of the buffer is to act as a cushion to absorb shocks emanating from outside to protect and retain the sanctity of the core. The buffer, thus, must be managed in a manner that it effectively accommodates the needs of the local people and the wildlife dispersing out from the natal area – the core (Compendium of Guidelines and Circulars issued by the Project Tiger Directorate, Ministry of Environment & Forests, and November 2004)
Here a question arises – where does ‘tourism’ fit in the management objectives of the tiger reserve?
The policies and the management objectives lay down that tourism in tiger reserve is to be used as a conservation tool to educate visitors and elicit the public support of conservation rather than as a commercial, resource degrading mass tourism operation. The First Tiger Task Force set up in 1972 initiated project tiger in India. One of the goals of tiger reserves mentioned in the original Task Force report was: “To preserve for all times, area of such biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education, and enjoyment of people.”
The Task Force Report, 1972, also visualized recreational use with a specific caveat:
” Provide long-term conservation of biotopes of which the tiger is an integral part…….Creation of tiger reserves must not be regarded as a cause to sterilize the areas as far as human use is concerned. Regulated scientific and educational use of the area should be made. Recreational use will be permitted provided it is controlled and complementary to the principal object of management…. In the case of doubt conservation of the biotope shall take priority…. Other forms of human disturbance, however, such as commercial felling, collection of minor forest produce, mining, excessive traffic, heavy grazing by domestic livestock are clearly detrimental and must be phased out for complete elimination.”
Later, the only comprehensive policy on wildlife conservation in the country – the National Wildlife Action Plan, 1983 ( revised 2002-16) provided definite objectives and direction to tourism happening in all categories of protected areas and the Action Plan empasizes the following –
• Regulated, low-impact tourism has the potential to be a vital conservation tool as it helps win public support for wildlife conservation.
• In case of any conflict between tourism and conservation interests of a PA, the paradigm for decision must be that tourism exists for the parks and not parks for tourism and that
• Tourism demands must be subservient to and in consonance with the conservation interests of PA and all wildlife.
• While revenues earned from tourism can help the management of the PA, maximization of income must never become the main goal of tourism, which should remain essentially to impart education and respect for nature.”
It is, therefore, natural and legitimate for the tiger reserves in India to permit recreational use in a strictly controlled manner.
It is noteworthy that when tiger reserves were first constituted in 1973 till the amendment of the Wildlife (Protection Act) in 2006 , a tiger reserve was a recognition given to either national park or sanctuary as an area essential for conservation of tiger which was adjudged eligible for receiving financial and technical support from Project Tiger ( now NTCA) , GoI. After 2006 amendment the tiger reserves have received legal recognition with two distinct management units– a core and a buffer. Apparently, when the task force reports came, any reference to tourism in those reports meant tourism within the national park or sanctuary (now designated as core under 38 V of the amended Wildlife (Protection) Act.
Unfortunately, in last one decade or so, unplanned and unregulated growth of tourism infrastructure around tiger reserves has become an emergent threat to tiger as its dispersal areas and corridors; these areas, already choked with present and expanding villages, roads and canals, mines and industries, are now threatened by the proliferation of new hotels and large resorts with their enormous fenced premises that not only occupy critical movement corridors but are also a constant source of disturbance, pollution and depletion of the forests and groundwater resources that belong to the local people. Inside, in tourism zones lack of appropriate planning that includes – setting desired ecological and social conditions that should be maintained as a goal of management of the reserve, determining indicators to monitor changes, and poor law enforcement impact tiger and its habitat and prey.
The National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-16 prescribes implementation of ‘Ecotourism’ in protected areas. The National Tiger Conservation Authority also advocates the same, but as tourism, in the Tiger Reserves of today, has a history older than the concepts like sustainable tourism and ecotourism, most PAs suffer from the ills of traditional mass tourism that hardly cares for the environment, the ecology or the interests of local people. Implementation of ecotourism in its truest spirit can still save these precious areas from certain doom.
There is a globally emerging consensus that ecotourism seeks to combine conservation, communities, and sustainable travel into one workable whole. This happens when those who wish to implement and participate in ecotourism activities adhere to the following ecotourism principles:
1. minimize negative impacts of tourism linked development and activities of visitors on the environment, ecology, and local cultures
2. build awareness and respect for environment and culture ensure that both visitors and hosts receive positive experiences
3. develop methods and mechanisms to direct sustainable financial benefits to local people and local economy
4. provide financial benefits for conservation of natural resources on which tourism depends.
5. raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.
Unplanned development of tourism always results in attrition of the resources, adversely impacts wildlife habitats and finally leads to dissatisfaction of visitors and earns a bad name for the protected area and the government. Increasing and unrestricted use of local resources such as land, groundwater, and firewood has both social repercussions and adverse ecological impacts. The escalation of prices of land and commodities owing to tourism growth in a region may bring about serious hardships to local people, for example, the in many East African parks poor sanitation results in the disposal of campsite sewage in rivers, contaminating the water that is used by wildlife, livestock, and people. The failure to manage impacts at Mount Kilimanjaro national park (Tanzania) of a large number of tourists has resulted in extensive erosion and degradation of trails, overflow of sewage from huts, accumulation of garbage, use of fuel wood for cooking, and overbooking resulting in the use of natural caves for shelter. Harcourt and Stewart (1993) observed that impacts include amongst other things, damage to endemic plants, lowering of water quality, and loss of aesthetic value Besides, the irresponsible dumping of kitchen waste transforms wild animals into scavengers; in 1993, two visitors counted nearly 4500 pieces of rubbish, comprising wrappers, cigarette packets, toilet papers and plastic items, along a 10 km stretch of trail, or 450 items per km. This estimate did not include rubbish hidden under bushes. The same situation exists in several protected areas in India.(in Madhya Pradesh the worst hit location is Delawadi, Bharkatunda in Madhav National Park and various tourist attractions on Pachmarhi plateau in Satpura national park, The Shesh sayya to Fort temple trail in Bandhavgarh, that remains littered with water bottle and pouches, is a glaring example of starting certain visitor activities without planning and safeguards.
The threat from tourism has aggravated in recent years as hotels and their fenced premises around tiger reserves, have cut off corridors and potential dispersal areas. Around well-known tiger reserves, many hotels are already operating, and several new hotels are in the pipeline. A large number of hotels and eateries in remote locations also exert demands on already burdened buffer forests for the supply of firewood further degrading the buffer forests. The lands on which these hotels are built mostly belong to the poor forest side tribal people, who attracted by the lure of money sell these lands and become landless labourers. Most of these lands are fallow scrub land that provided cover for the passage to the tigers through the villages unnoticed into the corridor. Such development is in nobody’s (hoteliers, tour operators, locals and the protected area) interest and unsustainable.
Though, today Ecotourism is considered the most rapidly expanding sectors of the travel industry. And it is being promoted by many as a way to achieve environmental conservation objectives, and as a tool for sustainable development of remotely situated host communities, little effort is visible in the Tiger reserves towards involving and benefiting forest dependent local people who are not well disposed towards protected area owing to resource use conflicts.
Tourism Management capacity in most PA is sub-optimal. Protection staff gets diverted to tourism management. As tourism management requires different skills, the quality of output by forest functionaries does not always lead to visitor satisfaction. Though the management plans exist, there is hardly any detailed planning for visitor management and visitor use of the area.
Unfortunately, despite the policies that advocate implementation of Ecotourism for managing tourism in tiger reserves, the rapid commercialization has raised serious concerns.