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The Corbett Connundrum

Co-authored with Aditya Singh (Published in Sanctuary Asia Feb 2011 issue)

Winter morning - Corbett

A warm summer evening. A drive through the picturesque Kumaon forest. The Gypsy you are in comes to a sudden halt. There is excitement in the air as a chital herd belts out frantic alarm calls. Not too long after, a majestic tiger walks toward the river. A few metres across, a herd of elephants slowly approach the river for their evening drink. As your eyes shuttle between these two magnificent species, two aerial acrobats vie for attention. A pair of Pied Kingfishers hovers right above the middle of the river in search of an evening snack. This is the true magic of Corbett National Park… the land of roar, trumpet and song!

Over the ages, Corbett has fascinated thousands of wildlife and nature lovers across the globe. Home to some of the most stunning landscapes and rich wildlife, the Dhikala zone of Corbett is one of India’s prime natural wonders. With mixed vegetation that comprises dense sal cover and vast stretches of open grasslands, Dhikala offers a viable habitat for the tiger and the Asiatic elephant. Abundant water resources in the form of glacial rivers and thick forest cover houses hundreds of resident and migratory birds.

As India’s first tiger reserve, Corbett is also an example of how tourism and conservation can be at loggerheads. Close proximity to major cities such as Delhi and wayward tourism have had an impact on the park’s ecology. Over 70 odd private properties have cropped up in and around the Corbett Tiger Reserve. With wildlife and adventure tourism being a flourishing and profitable business, surrounding towns like Ramnagar depend on this as a major source of income. For the locals, even slight changes in forest laws can therefore hamper their economy, making survival tough in the seasonal business of tourism.

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WHEN TOURISM HURTS

Over the years the phalanx of resorts on the eastern boundary of Corbett has cut off the corridors used by wild animals to access the Kosi river and the forests of the Ramnagar Division. Most of the resorts have a high ecological footprint, from producing enormous waste to catering to loud, rash tourists. The park’s management has often been under political pressure generated by the tourism lobby to bend rules. Increasing road traffic on the highway from Ramnagar to Mohan has also resulted in roadkills. Dhikala, in particular, has borne the brunt of runaway tourism.

Following condemnation from the wildlife community and reports by forest officials on how they are unable to handle the tourist pressure in Dhikala, the MoEF proposed the closure of the Dhikala zone in Corbett National Park for tourism. However, considering the economic and even conservation implications of this decision, is closing a zone the only solution to the problem? Shouldn’t a more viable long-term solution be considered?

Our Protected Areas were created to safeguard our last remaining vaults of biodiversity. It is unfortunate that market dictates do not permit protection for protection’s sake. But rather than creating a complete washout, we could consider a broader triple bottom line – market, environment and society. The reality is that tourism has more often than not served as the only ally of conservation, whether we like it or not. This is not to say that its flaws should be ignored. But the positive aspect of tourism is that it can be made into a winning formula, if we are truly committed to using it for the advantage of wildlife.

HOW TOURISM CAN HELP

With vehicles roaming inside the park boundaries on a regular basis, the forest is under constant surveillance as tourists indirectly patrol the park regularly. This is important as it keeps a check on any illegal activities inside a forest. In addition, tourists also act as information banks for the Forest Department as they are the eyes and ears of the forest. Information such as predator movement inside the park, locations of last sighting of mammals, reptiles and birds are handy records for keeping track of the forest health. This is why there have even been proposals to open up core areas of the park that are barred for tourists as of now and it would be worthwhile to have a larger debate on whether this can indeed reduce impact on tourist zones like Dhikala and also ensure that the core zones come under the tourist surveillance radar.

Tourism in a controlled and regulated manner can serve to bring much needed economic support if funds are ploughed back to our Protected Areas. Dhikala – as a matter of fact – is one of the few forest zones in India where due to its magnitude and size, night stay is permitted and mandatory for tourists. Unrestricted day trips to Dhikala have been curtailed with only a few canters permitted to better control the tourists. Perhaps a middle ground can be found whereby a restricted number of tourists are permitted for day and evening drives as is prevalent in other parks in the country.

CONSERVATION AND TOURISM

Tourism is the only ‘industry’ that pays for biodiverse, standing forests. Tourists are also a very effective de facto anti-poaching unit in many Protected Areas in India, possibly the most effective given the poor track record of patrolling. It is little wonder then that tourism zones seem to harbour the highest tiger densities. Dr. Raghu Chundawat, tiger scientist, has stated that the Tala zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh held a greater density of wild tigers (by far the highest in the world) than he had ever believed possible in such a small area. Of course, the Tala range also happens to support one of the highest tourist densities of all our tiger reserves.

Tourism, to a large extent, was responsible for the revitalisation of African wildlife. In a developing country like South Africa, wilderness tourism generates US$12 per acre per annum, while agricultural land yields just US$3 per acre. Furthermore its national parks are virtually financed by tourism revenues. Mountain gorillas ‘earn’ $200,000 per annum in permit fees alone for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and the indirect revenue is probably 30 times greater. Living Kenyan elephants will help bring in $1,000,000 in tourism revenue in their lifetimes, while a local poacher will earn less than $300 for the value of elephant ivory.

Let’s move to tigers. What is a tiger worth? The tourism zone of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, which has around 20 tigers, contributes over one billion rupees – directly and indirectly – to the Indian economy, every year. However, what must be considered is how much of this money helps to protect the species and how much reaches locals living around the reserve. The unfortunate truth is that over 40 per cent of this amount never reaches anyone in Ranthambhore and barely three per cent actually goes to the park. This must change… the money must be channelled in an honest and transparent manner to benefit wildlife and locals and it is both the tourism industry as well as the government’s responsibility to make sure that this happens.

To make wildlife tourism an effective conservation tool in India we – conservationists, the government and tourism professionals – must change our own archaic thought processes regarding both tourism and conservation. There are no magical solutions but there are a few things that we can do.

Visitors are able and willing to pay much more. The entrance fee in some parks is even lower than the price of bottled water in a mid-range hotel. And there is nothing wrong with charging special-interest tourists including photographers and birdwatchers, more for the privilege of longer, carefully supervised excursions and permissions to use hides or guard outposts. We should explore the idea of developing a tourism buffer within the forest buffer area. In most parks, for instance, agricultural fields begin right where the forest ends, leading to human-wildlife conflict. If hotels in wildlife areas were only permitted to set up facilities in harmony with the land on just two per cent of their land holdings, they could be persuaded to manage the rest of their land holding with the same strict rules that are implemented within the national park. If this were done, within a few short years, we would have a high biodiversity tourism buffer on the periphery of most parks. This would not only add to the forest area but reduce the tourist pressures at today’s over-crowded entry points. And, of course, ‘tourist cash’ would automatically reach locals.

Secondly, while the core zone of each Protected Area should definitely not be turned into a free-for-all, there must be a debate on how tourism can help to protect the core areas. Field biologists and forest officers need to work together to come up with a plan that suggests how ‘controlled’ tourism in core areas in some parks can be turned into a monitoring exercise for a few days each month. Most wildlife offences including poaching, cattle grazing and woodcutting take place in the core zone where offenders have free rein. In Ranthambhore, the poaching incidents that took place between 2003 and 2005 only came to light because poachers started targeting tigers in the tourism zone, after they had wiped out tigers from the inaccessible core. If tourists are asked to actually monitor the core area for perhaps a few days each month but asked to pay for the experience, the revenue generated could pay for 24×7 patrolling, 365 days a year. Core areas were created to allow wildlife the solitude they deserve but given the magnitude of threat from poaching and illegal grazing, we must take a fresh look at what can ensure them greater safety.

THE FUTURE OF CORBETT

For a forest like Corbett, some tourism rules are already in place and have been effective in several zones of the park. Caps on tourist vehicles entering the park, designated hours for morning and evening safaris inside the park, pre-conditions for tourists who are willing to go for a whole day drive inside the park – Corbett has seen it all over the years.

The Corbett Tiger Reserve has always been known for its best practices and highly efficient forest management that have set bench marks for other national parks in the country. It has also witnessed a dramatic rise in tiger numbers in the last census. A detailed analysis of what can curtail the ills of tourism there and ensure better practices that do not result in dismal conservation is the need of the hour.

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