Tulsi Bordoloi, 53, is a happy man. As Secretary of the Kaziranga Jeep Safari Association, he feels that members of his Association and their nearly 2000 odd dependents, who are directly or indirectly involved with tourism at Kaziranga National Park (KNP) have got a new lease of life with a recent Supreme Court judgment, which allowed resumption of tourism in the tiger reserves.
“We welcome the judgement as tourism will continue in Kaziranga now. But I wish the judgment had come a little early as many advanced bookings got cancelled,” says Bordoloi. He explains that many unemployed local youth are associated with tourism in KNP in the form of selling local products through self-help groups, small guest houses, home stays and even private elephant safaris. “Our boys also gain a lot of insight and knowledge from the tourists, especially the foreigners. Tourism is the only business here, though it lasts for only six months. In fact, the tourist season could be stretched if the weather was favourable. And new elements like a museum and an amusement park would add to the attraction for a tourist,” he adds.
He however, dismisses the apprehension that tourism affects wildlife populations, especially tigers in KNP. He says, “The SC has granted permission for using 20 percent of the core areas whereas KNP barely uses 11 percent of the core areas for tourism. We exclusively use the Under Tourist Road inside the Park and that too within specific timings – 7:30 am to 10 am in the morning and 2pm to 3 pm in the afternoon.” He further claims that when members of his Association are inside the Park during the allotted time, they also indirectly act as a security cover against the poachers.
The Supreme Court relaxed a temporary order that prevented tourists from accessing “core” zones of tiger reserves, or areas where concentration of tigers is highest. This decision is a welcome relief for some of India’s most popular tiger parks, like Jim Corbett National Park, Ranthambore and Assam’s Kaziranga National Park. The only major parks that allow tourists in more than a fifth of their core areas are Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh.
Earlier on July 24, the court had banned all tourist activities in core areas of tiger reserves, on the basis of a PIL filed by conservationist Ajay Dubey which demanded removal of the commercial tourism activities from the core or critical tiger habitats. On August 29, the apex court had extended activities in core tiger reserve areas till September 27.
Activists feel, however, that restricting tourism is important in order to save India’s tigers, whose numbers have dwindled considerably. According to a recent report by the NGO Aaranyak, “Kaziranga is one of the highest density tiger habitats in the country and has a healthy breeding source population. It has over 100 tigers, the estimate based on the annual monitoring carried out in 2009, 2010 and 2011 using the camera trap method. Kaziranga which was declared a tiger reserve in 2008, covers over 1,000 square kilometres. It is a world heritage site, is home to the largest population of the one-horned rhino and is known for high density of tigers.”
Firoz Ahmed, wildlife biologist associated with Project Tiger says, “This is a positive move for the Tiger Reserve where tourism and conservation is hand in hand. However, the new guidelines, that encourages ecotourism in 20% or less areas of the core area should be adhered to ensure that tourism does not harm conservation of wildlife in its habitats.”
Earlier this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered about 70 industrial units operating inside the “no-development zone” near Kaziranga to shut down. It also imposed a penalty of Rs 1 lakh each on the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and the state, for allowing the units to operate in the restricted zone. NGT noted that the units were causing air and water pollution, thereby damaging the ecology of Kaziranga.
Conservation of the tiger population will go hand in hand with ‘responsible tourism’. The need of the hour is awareness, especially among the local population about tiger conservation and who are involved in the tourism business.