Supreme Court condemns India to the risk of Virtual Tigers
Is it better for a tiger sometimes to feel harassed by hordes of noisy tourists, or be killed by poachers? That is the simple question raised by one of the most ill-advised edicts ever issued by India’s Supreme Court, which last week backed a misguided conservationist lobby and banned all tourism in the core areas of the country’s 40-plus tiger reserves.
It may seem perverse to write about India’s tiger problems instead of about the spectacular opening of the Olympic Games in London three days ago, but there is a link. A spoof television sit com, Twenty Twelve, has been running on the BBC about a mostly incompetent Olympics Deliverance Commission. Faced with the risk of the opening ceremony’s massive firework display triggering the automatic firing of anti-bomber missiles stationed nearby, the commission eventually got something right and hit on the bright idea of using virtual fireworks that are broadcast on television around the world as if they were live – only the audience in the Olympic stadium knows they are not.
Imagine India being forced to show virtual tigers on big television screens in the middle of national parks because the 1,700 or so that still survive have been decimated. That is the risk if the authorities do not get real about how to save them – and that includes recognising that tourists are a major deterrent to poaching.
The ban has been widely criticised because closing the areas will open them to tiger poachers setting traps, and to “timber mafia” illegally felling trees, without the risk of being spotted by tourists. These groups will bribe their way past under-paid forest guards, having bought-off their bosses up to top bureaucrats and politicians. Select visitors such as leading businessmen will pay their way into the areas for up-market parties, as well as organisers of night-time events. State governments will lose tourism revenues that help to pay for forest guards, and there is also a risk of Naxalite Maoist rebels, who operate in remote forest areas including some parks, expanding their activities.
Wildlife tourism should be of course strictly controlled, as it has been increasingly in recent years – in many parks, tourists are already not allowed in some areas. Controls have been introduced on the number of vehicles (usually 50 a day) that can enter parks. There is also a need to restrict rampant hotel and other luxury construction surrounding core areas because these often block tiger corridors that are essential for them animals to move from one area to another.
In Africa, tourism is used as a tool for conservation and there are several examples of well-regulated tourism, good protection and community-participation. I have seen this at Pilanesberg wildlife park near Pretoria, South Africa, where discreet tourist facilities were strictly controlled and there did not appear to be any encroachment or unauthorised construction in adjacent areas.
The Supreme Court’s edict is a rare example of bad judgement. For many years, the courts have been handing down instructions for work that should have been done by central, state and municipal governments – ranging from ordering the removal of street garbage to cancelling fraudulent telecom licences in the recent 2G corruption scandal. Their judgements are usually sound, but they sometimes go too far, as critics think they did in cancelling the telecom licences, and as they certainly have done with the tigers.
The Supreme Court will review its ban at its next hearing on August 22. It might not matter much if the ban only lasts these few weeks, especially in northern India where many parks are closed during the monsoon. The risk is that it might not be cancelled – and even if it is, muddled ecotourism guidelines produced by the environment ministry have a long term aim of closing the areas.
It is not impossible for wildlife conservation to progress alongside regulated tourism, and that has been shown by the official numbers of India’s tigers going up from around 1,400 to 1,700 since a 2008 census when the situation was dire.
But the Supreme Court’s ban is not the way. The judges’ detachment from reality was demonstrated when they said last week that “the tigers are on the edge of extinction” – ignoring the 1,400 to 1,700 increase, which has happened with tourists inside the core areas.
For a longer updated version of this post, with more photographs, go to John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog – http://wp.me/pieST-1Kd
Tagged in: conservation, eco-tourism, environment, India, tigers, wildlife
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