Let's not talk of tigers for a while. Let's talk of people.
If anyone wants to really understand how intimately the lives of the villagers dotting the perimeter of National Parks have come to depend on eco-tourism, he merely needs visit any of these national parks in the monsoon months. These are the months when the parks are closed for tourism. What you will find is almost all villagers idling, whiling away their time and living off the earnings they made during the tourist season. The corner chai shops are full of people sitting and reclining on the benches and talking. There is no work - farming is only worth the name - and there is all the time in the world. They drink less tea and talk more. The chai shop is not doing brisk business. That will happen once the tourists arrive. Everything around the villages is in a suspended animation.
The entire economy, the very survival, of these villages has come to depend solely on eco-tourism. And in that term lies the rub as well as the challenge.
The rub is that there is no such thing as eco-tourism. The average tourist is tiger-centric. Show him the tiger and he is ready to part with good money. He might deign to look at the other, lesser denizens of the forest if there is a chance that he will get to see the tiger. Remove the tiger from the Parks and your tourism will collapse. The rest of the eco-system does not matter.
So whether or not tourism is good for the conservation of the tiger, it is certainly good for the conservation of people in these villages.
But what about the tiger? The NTCA authorities and the Shehla Massods - God rest her soul - and the Ajay Dubeys of this world seem to think ill of tourism. They seem to think that tourism is bad for the forests and for the tiger and therefore, in a PIL that is being heard in the Supreme Court now, they have sought that tourism should be limited to the buffer regions of these parks and the core areas should be out of bounds. The data seems to suggest completely the opposite. The most recent tiger census makes it pretty clear that most of the tigers that survive are in the core areas of the National Parks and precious little number lives outside these areas. The core areas are where the tourism is, right? So if the data says this, why are you arguing against your own data? Is it also not a fact that it was basically tourists who alerted all concerned about the lack of tigers in Sariska? Otherwise the Park authorities were busy camouflaging the fact and were forging data of a huge number of tigers still roaming around that jungle. There are several such examples where the tourists have been the biggest deterrents against poaching.
There is another fact that is very conveniently glossed over when such measures are proposed. How much of the core area in any given park is really open to tourism? In Kanha National Park, only one fourth of the core area is for tourism. The rest is even today out of bounds. Zones like Supkhar and Bhaisanghat within the core area cannot be visited by the tourists. The same is the situation in most National Parks. So if there is still provision for the private lives of the animals in the park, where is the argument to throw the tourist out? The fact is that the rationale for removing the tourist from the core area for the benefit of the tiger is quite tenuous.
But in that term, ‘eco-tourism' lies a challenge too. All tourism cannot be good. Surely, those who visit the park in the ‘picnic' mood and therefore shout at the top of their lungs, leave the dirt-marks of civilization in the form of polythene bags within the forests and in general make a nuisance of themselves cannot be good for the eco-system. Moreover, while tourism may be good for the survival of the tiger, unchecked tourism can result in the reverse result.
The need is to limit tourism to permissible limits. The need is to completely ban creation of new resorts within 5 km circle around the core zone. The need is to decrease the number of vehicles entering the Parks per day.
But there is another need too. This need is of the people in the villages near the core areas. Abolishing tourism in the core zone will abolish almost all tourism. People are not mad to throw good money at the bad prospect of sighting a tiger in the buffer area. Once tourism collapses, the whole economy of villages around the core area will collapse. "Those who have an interest in protecting the tiger today, will be the biggest poachers of tomorrow," said a veteran guide from Kanha National park in conversation with me. "After all, sahib, we too have to eke out our living."
I am appalled to see the naturalists attached to the costly resorts at Kanha. Not a single one of them is a native. Most have come from southern states or Rajasthan. The overriding consideration for their selection has been their knowledge of English so that they can be useful to the foreign tourists who bring the moolah. So these resorts bring these guys from other areas and train them here in the jungles of central India. Why can't they recruit the natives and train them in speaking English? The latter is far more easy compared to the former. In fact, it should be made compulsory that all jobs in the resorts, the lucrative ones and the menial will go solely to the natives. I believe that only when the people around are well fed will the tiger be safe. Not the other way round.
To save the tiger, you do not have to direct all your attention to the tiger. If it is the people who have decimated the tiger, only they have the power to see to the resurgence in their number.
So, let's not talk of the tiger and its conservation for a while. Let's talk of the people. The people who are in responsible positions in the NTCA. The people who want a ban on tourism in the core zones. And the people who live in close proximity to the forests and whose lives depend on tiger tourism.