Dark twist to bright tale
Three tigers die in a week under mysterious circumstances; total 32 deaths in two-and-a-half years; all in the forests of Corbett, a showpiece of tiger conservation. Who is targeting the tiger? …
IT was a hot May evening. Near the south-eastern border of Corbett Tiger Reserve, Gopal was busy lopping off branch after green branch for his cattle to eat at night. His hands moved fast—a tiger reserve is not the place to be caught alone when night falls. Just as the 16-year-old boy neared the stream close to Patrani village, a stench overpowered his senses. The disgusting smell was coming from a pile of dry branches. Curious, Gopal peeped under the branches. Belonging to the grazier community of the Himalayas, Van Gujjar, he has grown up on gruesome stories of mountain beasts. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw that evening. A rotten, stinking pile of flesh, with patches of black- and-yellow-striped skin, lay before his eyes. Maggots slithered out of the gaping hollow which must have been a tiger’s mouth once. Gopal lost no time in informing the village forest guard about what he just saw.
The guard, in his liquor-induced stupor, could barely comprehend what the boy said. But by next morning, on June 1, word had spread like fire about yet another tiger death near the reserve. This was the third tiger carcass to have been found in Corbett in a week. Two more decomposed tiger bodies had been recovered from around the reserve boundary between May 27 and June 1.
On May 27, a fully decomposed carcass of a three-year-old tigress was recovered from the bushes on the bank of a seasonal river in the Dhela range just inside the boundary of the reserve. The body appeared to have been lying there for five to six days. Just two days later, a half-decomposed body of a fully grown tiger, aged six-seven years, was found near a sot (water body) in Sanwaldeh village in Ampokhra range of Terai West Forest Division. The spot, though outside the reserve boundary, was hardly seven kilometres from where the first carcass was found. The body seemed to have been decomposing for three-four days.
Van Gujjars from the settlement where the first tiger carcass was found say the tigers have died after a fight. They talk of hearing the growl of tigers fighting on May 22 evening. “It seemed the tigers were fighting right behind our huts. We shouted and flashed torches to scare them away. Later, I informed the forest staff on phone about the probable fight between tigers,” says Ghulam Nabi, a Van Gujjar.
The forest staff confirms this. “It was too late in the night when we got the call. We decided to patrol the area for wounded tigers in the morning. For the next three days we patrolled the entire range but could not find the tigers,” says a forest guard. “It seemed the tigers went far away from our range after the fight.”
This does not sound implausible. Tigers are territorial animals and with a density of 9.4 tigers per sq km, territorial fights are common in Corbett. There are, however, certain aspects of the tiger-fight story that make it far from credible. The first carcass was found lying less than 500 metres from a forest check post four days after the so-called fight. If forest staff had patrolled the area why could they not find the wounded tigress? A conservationist who was present at the site when the carcass was recovered says there were hardly any wound marks visible on the carcass to suggest a fight. Another unanswered question is: if there was a fight, where is the other wounded tiger?
The forest staff, in its defense, suggests the third carcass spotted by Gopal could be of the other tigress. It probably fought with the first one and went towards Patrani and eventually succumbed to wounds. But it is rare that both tigers die after a fight. Most territorial disputes are settled through posturing or fights. And if the third animal did die after the fight, who hid the carcass under the bushes? If it had been rotting there for six days how come guards from the watch tower failed to notice it? The fact that all the three carcasses were found near Van Gujjar settlements led to quick conclusion of the community’s involvement.
“Lightening does not strike at the same spot thrice in a day,” says a visibly perplexed Samir Sinha, who had joined as the director of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand barely a week before the mysterious deaths. He is sure the tigers have not died a natural death and claims foul-play.
While the number of tigers in the reserve and surrounding forests has increased from 164 in 2008 to 214 in 2010—these forests now boast the world’s highest tiger density—the spate of tiger deaths since the last census has given a dark twist to the much-hyped conservation story of the Corbett. At least 32 tigers have died in Corbett in the past two-and-a-half years.
The forest administration had tried to play down the incidents in the past, saying a few natural deaths every year are not a cause for concern considering the tiger population density in the reserve. But even the records of the National Tiger Conservation Authority show only 11 of the 32 tigers died of natural reasons or because of poaching. The cause of death of 21 others remains unknown—the frequency and circumstances of these deaths do not support the natural-death theory (see map).
Most of the suspicious tiger deaths have occurred in those areas of the Corbett and nearby forests that touch the Uttar Pradesh border. Several villagers and communities there depend on forest resources. Tourism is also thriving near these villages. It is a common perception among wildlife lovers that people living close to forest often kill big cats in retaliation following attacks on them and their cattle by tigers. “The boundaries are porous and human-animal conflicts are common in these areas. Due to extremely poor patrolling by the forest department in these regions, such incidents cannot be averted,” says Tito Joseph of Wildlife Protection Society of India.
It is only after the recent wave of tiger deaths that the Corbett administration has acknowledged the possibility of human hand behind the deaths. But they are not sure who it could be.
THE CASE FILES
The last case that involved Gopal is the most intriguing. Forest officials found the carcass lying on its back in the North Jaspur range of the Terai Forest Division. This is not a posture a dying tiger would naturally take. The body was so badly decomposed that it was difficult to ascertain the gender and age of the tiger. Later, it was assumed that it must have been a two-three-year-old tigress. General sense is that the animal died somewhere else and the carcass was shifted to mislead investigations.
The post-mortems of the tigers have been inconclusive because the bodies were highly decomposed. Samples of a few body parts have been sent to the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow and reports are awaited. Circumstantial evidences, however, point towards a strong possibility of poisoning.
For one, all the three tigers were less than seven years of age. Average age of tigers in the wild is 12 years; in Corbett, with a constant struggle for space and prey, it is considered to be 8-10 years. This negates the possibility of natural death.
Secondly, all carcasses were found under trees or bushes near water bodies. “Poison dehydrates the body. When poisoned, animals feel thirsty and tend to go towards water bodies. They also avoid the sun when they start feeling unconscious,” says Bilal Habib, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun. There is a strong possibility that the animals ran towards water bodies after being poisoned. The officials also hint at poisoning, albeit hesitantly. “It (poisoning) has not been proven in the post-mortem report. But certainly cannot be ruled out,” says Sinha.
WHO’S THE CULPRIT?
Professional poachers have been active in the Corbett reserve in the past few years but they do not seem to be the culprits in these cases. For one, they generally use firearms or traps to kill tigers and not poison, which can render certain body parts useless for sale. Secondly, all body parts of the dead tigers were intact. Why would poachers kill a tiger if not for its body parts? But if not the poachers, who else?
The usual suspects in such cases have been the Van Gujjars. They had been living in the Shivalik mountains near the Corbett Tiger Reserve for over a century. Of late the nomadic graziers have started living in permanent settlements, several of them inside the Corbett. As per official figures, 181 Van Gujjar families live in the reserve and many more in the buffer zone and areas near the reserve boundary.
There have been instances in the past when Van Gujjars killed tigers in retaliation of cattle-lifting. They have reportedly used non-productive cattle as bait and rubbed Nuvan Prostrips, a pesticide easily available in the local markets, over its skin to poison the tiger. Local media and people in Ramanagar suspect the graziers are behind the recent tiger deaths as their settlements lie within 200 metres of the two spots where carcasses were found. There, however, are several facts that work in graziers’ defense.
It was the Van Gujjars who spotted two of the carcasses and informed the forest department. Besides, there have recently been no confirmed reports of cattle-lifting in the region. “We have been living in harmony with the forests for centuries. We cannot survive if we harm the forests, antagonise the tigers or not cooperate with the forest department,” says Ghulam Nabi. “Van Gujjars were involved in some such cases in the past but that was long time back. You cannot brand the whole community as tiger killers,” he adds.
Retaliation is a simplistic explanation for the tiger deaths, says K D Kandpal, team leader at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) office at Kaladhungi near Ramnagar. “Retaliatory killings used to happen earlier when it was very difficult for villagers to claim compensation for cattle killed by tigers. But since the process has been made simple and smooth, the number of such incidents has come down drastically in the past three-four years,” says Kandpal.
Earlier the government ran a scheme to compensate villagers for cattle-lifting by tigers. Verification of claims under this scheme was complicated and riddled with corruption. Besides, the paltry amount of Rs 12,000 was nowhere close to the market price of a productive buffalo, which is about Rs 50,000. Frustrated, villagers would resort to killing tigers to prevent cattle-liftings. Few years ago WWF, along with a few local non-profits, started a scheme to compensate the villagers for cattle-liftings. Apart from the government compensation, the WWF scheme provides Rs 5,000 for every buffalo killed by a tiger. “We process the claims within one week. Verifications done by us are also accepted by the government. This simplifies the compensation process at the government level, too,” says Kandpal. “As villagers can now get at least some money back for their cattle, they immediately report cattle-killings to the WWF and do not kill the tiger.”
The truth is yet to come out but the incident shows the Corbett tigers have more enemies than just professional poachers.
IF tiger deaths were the only trouble plaguing Corbett, government policies and managerial skills of the forest officials could have been blamed. But the reserve’s problems go much beyond the deaths. Corbett is one of the most high- profile tiger reserves in India. It was the first national park to be established in the country; Project Tiger was first launched here. As tiger became the biggest tourist attraction of recent times, Corbett, with the highest density of tigers, became one of the most sought-after destinations. This has led to a massive investment in the tourism industry by land sharks. Conservationists, non-profits and several politicians have stakes in the industry. In fact, a massive land grab has happened in and around Corbett in the past one decade, with resorts mushrooming on every patch of saleable land.
However, a year ago these activities were abruptly interrupted. After the Supreme Court asked the Centre to regulate tourism in tiger reserves, a few attempts were made to rein in the unregulated growth of tourism in Corbett. For instance, the forest department terminated the private contracts to run the canteens inside the reserve, while the Uttarakhand government banned the sale and purchase of land and change of land-use within two kilometres of the reserve. This has threatened big business interests. The resentment and desperation to protect businesses have resulted in a turf war between the forest department, “conservationists”, “non-profits”, land sharks and the people living in the area.
It is so intense that even a small issue of canteen contracts became an excuse for endless politicking. Corbett is one of the few tiger reserves in India that allows night stay for tourists. Four canteens in Corbett serve the tourists. A couple of years ago during the BJP rule in Uttarakhand, the contracts to run three of the canteens were given to Madan Joshi and Narendra Sharma, local BJP leaders, and their associates. Last year, after the environment ministry notified eco-tourism guidelines for tiger reserves the forest department in Corbett terminated private contracts for the canteens; it plans to set up a non-profit, Tiger Foundation, to run them. Since then, Joshi and Sharma, along with their accomplices, are alleged to have been at loggerheads with the forest department. People involved in this fight are connected to the two most powerful families in the country.
The idea of terminating the private contracts was mooted by Brijendra Singh, the honorary wildlife warden of Corbett. Considered to be close to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Singh has been holding the reward post in Corbett for the past 30 years. He is also a member of the National Board of Wildlife headed by the prime minister and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Joshi and Sharma, who held the canteen contracts, are members of People for Animals (PFA), an animal rights group run by Maneka Gandhi. In December last year, after the contracts were terminated, Gauri Maulekhi, member secretary of PFA’s Uttarakhand chapter, recorded a video and put it up on YouTube, showing how the forest staff was running the canteen and not the foundation, and that Brijendra Singh was allowed to park his private vehicle inside the reserve.
Maulekhi, who is also designated special officer of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, has filed a petition against Singh in April this year in the Nainital High Court regarding his alleged role in the 2000-01 elephant poaching cases and questioning his eligibility as the honorary wildlife warden of Corbett. Five elephants were poached one after another in the reserve that year, for which the then director P C Joshi was held accountable and transferred. Joshi had accused Singh of misguiding the forest staff in the elephant poaching cases and of interfering in the investigation. In a letter written to the chief wildlife warden of the Uttarakhand on June 8, 2001, the copy of which is with Down To Earth, Joshi termed the poaching cases a conspiracy against him and hinted at Singh’s involvement in it.
In her petition, Maulekhi pleads for action gainst the honorary wildlife warden, stating that “Brijendra Singh was accused of being involved in the killing of 5 male elephants”. She also submits that his “being a permanent resident of New Delhi and a decidedly tainted record as far as wildlife crime goes” disqualifies him from holding the post. She has sought action against other senior forest officers as well for various reasons, among them former director of the reserve Ranjan Mishra for “attempting to cover up at least one confirmed case of tiger poaching” in May last year.
It is dirty politics. While Singh denied the allegation made in Joshi’s letter, Maulekhi is using Joshi’s letter to drag Singh’s name in the recent tiger deaths. “The sudden upsurge in tiger killings may also be political in nature. Political killings of five elephants took place in 2001 when a certain individual was accused in a lengthy report of the then Director Sri P C Joshi. The objective of getting the elephants killed, as per the report, was to revolt against an inconvenient Field Director. The similarity in the modus operandi is striking and the involvement of the same individual cannot be ruled out,” said Maulekhi in an email to S S Sharma, chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand on June 3, two days after the third tiger carcass was found.
Singh finds himself being linked to tiger deaths ridiculous. “How funny can that be?” he laughs. “The government is not foolish to have me at the position of honorary warden. It is because of my contribution that I am there. When tigers increase in number they often stray into villages and kill cattle. Villagers at times kill tigers in resentment. That is what is happening. How can they even think of something as stupid as this,” Singh told Down To Earth.
About P C Joshi’s allegation of misguiding investigation in elephant poaching, Singh said it was he who had pointed out the cases to Joshi. According to Singh, the state government had formed a committee of senior officials and wildlife experts, including him, to look into the elephant deaths. The committee held Joshi accountable for the poaching cases. Joshi wrote the letter in resentment and many things in it were not true, he alleged. “The main problem is her people here have lost the canteen contracts. These people were selling food items at an escalated rate. As per the new guidelines, we decided that a non-profit, Tiger Foundation, should be formed which will run the canteen and the revenue will go to the welfare of forest personnel and wildlife conservation. Since I mooted the idea, these people resent me,” Singh says.
Senior wildlife officers in the environment ministry as well as in the state and conservationists express disgust over the allegations against Singh. “It is too petty a thing to say about a person of Bijendra Singh’s stature. People are trying to malign him for personal reasons,” says a senior forest official in Delhi. “I know his heart bleeds for Corbett. The allegations are baseless,” says a member of the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife.
Singh also seems to be under fire from the tourism industry. Tourist guides and hotel operators this correspondent spoke to complained about his undue influence on the reserve’s administration. Singh says he is being maligned because he was a member of the fact-finding team appointed by the Union environment ministry that recommended the ban on the sale and purchase of land and land-use change in and around Corbett.
Given the explosive growth of tourism in Corbett a check was necessary.
LAND SHARKS’ PARADISE
There are 150-200 resorts near Corbett, while many more are planned. The highest concentration of the resorts is along the Kosi river near the south-eastern boundary of the reserve. While the Kosi was ravaged for sand and boulders for constructing resorts, the fenced properties blocked the crucial wildlife corridor between the tiger reserve and the Ramnagar forest.
The land sharks next set their eyes on revenue land in the Kalagarh forest division inside the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Along the Ramganga river are some 46 village chaks that people abandoned a long ago because there was no access to the outside world. As the forest department opened Durgadevi road in Kalagarh for tourists, the hoteliers saw business opportunity. Mukund Prasad, one of the biggest players in the tourism market of Corbett, bought land in Jamun village inside the forest at a dirt cheap rate and built Hideaway River Resort in 2004-05.
Prasad got a special permission from the forest department to use the park road to carry construction material, other requirements of the resort and even the guests. He also got the department to construct a 4.5 km road (see bill details) from the main Durgadevi road to the resort in the name of mahaseer conservation project. A tripartite agreement was signed between the then director of the reserve D S Khati, Prasad’s company Leisure Hotels Ltd and the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation for conducting angling sports in the Ramganga river for 30 years. Prasad also used a wide stretch of the Ramganga for recreation of his guests.
|The Great Corbett Amphitheatre
Honorary Wildlife Warden of Corbett
Considered to be close to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Singh is also member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the National Board of Wildlife. He was accused by a former director of the reserve of interfering and misguiding him in investigation of elephant poaching in 2000-01. He was part of a recent environment ministry team that looked into alleged benami transactions of land in and around Corbett.
Member Secretary, People for Animals, Uttarakhand
Considered to be close to Maneka Gandhi, Maulekhi is a member of the Animal Welfare board of India and is designated special officer of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. She has filed a petition against Brijendra Singh questioning his eligibility as Honorary Wildlife Warden of Corbett and alleging his involvement in the 2000-01 poaching cases. She is dragging his name in tiger deaths as well. Singh and his supporters allege she is campaigning against him because he got her accomplices’ canteen contracts in Corbett terminated.
Akbar Ahmad Dumpy
Former MP (Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh)
Considered close friend of late Sanjay Gandhi, Dumpy had once formed a political party with Maneka Gandhi. Dumpy, along with Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly member Ranjeet Singh, is alleged to have bought and sold vast tracts of land in Kalakhand inside the reserve through proxies.
Former President, Bharatiya Janata Party
Gadkari wrote on his party’s letter head to the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”, also from BJP, asking him to provide access to Daroga Singh, an alleged proxy of Dumpy, to the forest roads to carry out “agricultural work” in Kalakhand inside the tiger reserve.
Owner, Leisure Hotels Ltd
Belonging to a royal family in Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, Prasad is one of the biggest players in the tourism industry in Corbett. He bought revenue land inside the reserve and built a resort in 2004-05. Going against the law, the resort used forest road and a stretch of the Ramganga inside the reserve for commercial purpose.
Digvijay Singh Khati
Additional Principle Chief Conservator of Forest, Uttarakhand
The former director of the Corbett Tiger Reserve gave special permission to Mukund Prasad’s hotel to use the forest roads inside the reserve. He got the forest department to construct a road from existing Durgadevi road to the Ramganga river bank where Prasad’s resort is located. For this, he entered into a tripartite agreement with Prasad’s Leisure Hotels and the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation to conduct angling sports in the Ramganga which flouted the laws.
Nav Prabhat was the forest minister when Prasad got favours from the forest department to run his resort inside the reserve. Khati wrote to his subordinate about his keenness to open the road connecting Durgadevi road to the Ramganga where Parasad’s resort is. Later, he, Khati and a few more forest officials toured South Africa to study eco-tourism. Leisure Hotels was the tour operator and Prasad accompanied the group.
Later in 2006, the forest department organised a study tour for Khati, the then forest minister of the state from Congress, Nav Prabhat, and four other forest officials to South Africa. Leisure Hotels Ltd was chosen as the tour organiser and Mukund Prasad accompanied the group. “Last year when the reports of undue favours given by Khati to private companies like that of Mukund Prasad came to light, I thought he would be punished but he has been promoted. He has friendship with influential politicians who protect him,” alleges R D Pathak, a forest official who filed a complaint against Khati in Lokayukta.
Another big fish in the land market in Corbett is Akbar Ahmad Dumpy, former member of Parliament from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Dumpy allegedly bought vast tracts of land in Kalakhand village adjacent to Jamun through proxies. According to an inquiry report prepared by the sub divisional magistrate in Dhumakot, most of the land in Kalakhand has been bought by one Daroga Singh of Ranikhet and Bhatiya Developers Pvt Ltd of Ramnagar. Down To Earth is in possession of the report. It mentions that Dumpy and Ranjeet Singh, Uttarakhand MLA, are reported to be associated with Daroga Singh.
Media reports last year alleged Dumpy was buying and selling land in Kalakhand through Daroga Singh. Sources in Corbett say the people who have bought land from Dumpy include big names in Indian politics and business but since the transactions are benami (through proxy), it is difficult to prove the linkages.
Unlike Prasad, Daroga Singh was not allowed to ferry construction material using the forest road. Nitin Gadkari, the then BJP chief, wrote on his party’s letterhead to the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”, asking him to provide Daroga Singh access to the forest road to carry out “agricultural practices”.
While the forest department provided every facility to the likes of Prasad, people owning ancestral land in the area complain of cold treatment. “They charged us Rs 250 to enter the reserve. I wanted to build huts for eco-tourism on my land in Jamun but the forest department did not give me permission,” says Ajay Bhadula whose ancestral land is adjacent to Prasad’s resort. “This is what is happening in Corbett. The outsiders are running huge business on our land and we are being harassed and forced to migrate,” he adds.
The tourism industry’s writ runs large in the region and the people living there often feel short-changed. Take the case of Kandi Road that passes through the tiger reserve. The road links Kotdwar and Ramnagar. An 18 km Jhirna-Kalagarh stretch of it inside the reserve is kuchcha, which has to be closed during monsoon. The people then take a circuitous route through Uttar Pradesh.
On the demand of residents, the government in 2000-01 cleared the proposal of making the stretch between Jhirna and Kalagarh a pukka road. However, two NGOs opposed the move on ecological grounds. They submitted an intervention application in 2001 in an on-going case on conservation practices in tiger reserves and their management, filed by Navin M Raheja, a major real estate developer in the National Capital Region, in the Supreme Court.
The court ordered a stay on the construction of the road. Later an alternate alignment was proposed by the Uttar pradesh government by diverting the road from Pili Dam through the Vadigarh-Angadpur-Jaspur route which was accepted by the Uttarakhand and the Central governments. The residents protested, saying the alignment had been proposed exclusively to benefit few influential resort owners, including Raheja. “It was at the behest of the resort owners that, first, the construction of the tiger reserve stretch of the road was put in abeyance and then, the new alignment was proposed which passes though their lands,” alleges P C Joshi, a resident of Ramnagar and president of a now-defunct committee formed to campaign for opening the Kandi road, which was closed when the case reached the court. “Otherwise, when there was already a national highway running parallel to the proposed alignment just six km away, what was the need for this highway?”
GOVERNMENT WAKES UP
While the state governments and the people are yet to come to an agreement on the matter, recent land grab cases in Corbett have caught media attention. As a result, last year the Union environment ministry set up the fact-finding team and following its report the state government not only banned sale and purchase of land but also cancelled the tripartite agreement for angling in the Ramganga and closed the road constructed to provide access to Prasad’s hotel. The report, kept under wraps, is understood to have recommended investigation of the roles of Prasad, Dumpy and Nav Prabhat in the alleged benami transactions and in promoting tourism.
A commission set up by the state government will now inquire into the alleged benami transactions of land inside the reserve.
It is possible that every saleable land inside Corbett has been bought by land sharks. A Wildlife Institute of India study showed good presence of wildlife in the forests of Kalakhand and Jamun. “It was important to protect the forest in these areas, otherwise the Ramganga would have become what the Kosi is today,” says a forest official.
This has hurt big business interests. Hideaway River had about 10 tents and each tent was rented for Rs 5,000 a night. The resort has also been shut down. According to media reports, land in Kalakhand and nearby villages was being sold for Rs 18-21 lakh per acre. The people in the region are also angry at the decision to ban land sale and change of land use. “We have always been small players in the tourism business—guides, gypsy operators or employees at a big hotel, that’s it. Many of us now plan to start our own low-impact eco-tourism ventures. But the ban on land use change will spoil our plans,” says Ramesh Suyal, a guide in Dhikuli. “Chances are the land sharks are instigating the local people to protest so that they can carry on with the business as usual,” said a forest official.
“All those who have invested money in land have a huge resentment against the forest department and a few people whom they think are responsible for this. Besides, within the forest department the staff is supporter of one or the other lobby and is busy in securing the interests of one person or the other. Everybody is concerned about power and money. Hardly anyone cares about the tiger,” a forest official says. “To me it looks like great Corbett amphitheatre.”
ABOUT 150 resorts dotting Corbett’s periphery can accommodate close to a whopping 5,000 tourists, say forest officials. But these visitors will require either luck or wads of cash to go on safari. That’s because in a day only 150 vehicles are allowed inside the park which can carry no more than 900 tourists. Those who can pay resort owners a fee several times higher than the prescribed charges go on safari, for the rest the resort owners often try other means of keeping them entertained.
The mad rush has led to pervasive corruption in booking safaris and forest guesthouses inside the reserve. A forest official who did not want to be named alleged a handful of hoteliers were running the show in Corbett. “They have their people in the forest staff who get them secured bookings, which are then sold to tourists at exorbitant rates. Small hoteliers also have to depend on the big fish for bookings,” he said. When this correspondent tried to book a visit on his own he could not get a permit even after four days. The manager of the resort where this correspondent stayed, though, offered him safari and night-stay at a forest guesthouse inside the reserve at double the prescribed rates and without the mandatory presence at the booking counter.
Since tiger is the crowd-puller, resort owners at times try unethical ways of entertaining the tourists who do not get the chance to go inside the forest. A few years ago, a resort in Garjia allegedly threw dead bait along the river in its backyard to attract the tiger. The spot was then crowded by elephant safaris. Till recently, many resorts offered DJ nights, rain dance and discs to the tourists. It was only in April last year that the government declared the area up to 500 m from the reserve’s boundary a silent zone.
State-run tourism complexes inside the core area are no better. National Tiger Conservation Authority’s guidelines on tourism in tiger reserves issued last year say permanent tourism structures in core areas should be phased out. But forest guesthouses are still hosting tourists.
Haphazard tourism growth has played a major part in inducing the human-animal conflict. A 2010 report by the Union ministry of tourism on wildlife in Corbett notes, “Baiting and the consequent increasing interface with humans familiarises the tigers with people and they lose their instinctive fear of humans. This could lead to unnatural behaviour like killing people.”
In 2010, a tiger mauled six people in Sunderkhal village near Garjia. Another tiger killed a woman of the same village the previous year.
Tourism is also contributing to tiger attacks by blocking wildlife corridors. Numerous hotels on the Ramnagar-Ranikhet road along the Kosi river have left only two narrow passages for wildlife to access the Kosi—one at Garjia and the other at Ringoda. Even these corridors are crowded by elephant safaris and gypsies from resorts for tiger sighting.
Several wildlife lovers who also own resorts along the Kosi have been pressuring the government for relocation of Sunderkhal—which as per the forest department is an encroachment—saying this will open up the Kosi corridor to a large extent.
Corbett is getting crowded from all sides. Sindhikhal, Rathuadhab, Kandanala, Tera, Marchula and Mohan villages on the northÃ”Ã‡Ã‰eastern and northern border are the upcoming tourism hot spots (see map on p32). In Kotabagh area where resorts have mushroomed, human-elephant conflict has become a regular phenomenon.
As Ramesh Suyal, who has been a guide at Corbett for 10 years, says “it was a rage. Everybody was busy building multi-story resorts but nobody thought that the park cannot accommodate so many tourists.”
For obvious reasons, the attention of the forest staff and many officials seems to be more on “managing” tourism rather than protecting tigers. “I have seen the guards, rangers and other forest staff posted on tourism management duties going from rags to riches,” says a small-time safari operator in Dhikuli. “On the other hand, for the guards and rangers engaged in patrolling there is hardly any reward.”
The tiger deaths are a reminder of this skewed focus. Amid all the allegations, tourism boom and politics, it is difficult to solve the mystery of tiger deaths. But Corbett has no option but to put the focus back on tigers.
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