Tiger tour operators' incidental love: tribals

Tiger tour operators' incidental love: tribals

Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava's take on tour operators' claim that tourism in core areas of reserves is good for tribals

An SMS invite, I received for a press conference this morning, said, “A Baiga tribal, who has never travelled out of the Kanha National Park before, will be there to share his story.” The Baigas are the indigenous people of the forests in central India. I was puzzled.

The conference was organised by the Travel Operators For Tigers (TOFT) in India, an organisation of wildlife tourism operators, along with a few well known ‘wildlife activists’ to demand the government continues to allow tourism in core areas of tiger reserves. A public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court has sought a ban on  tourism in the core areas of the tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. The National Tiger Conservation Authority mandates tourism should be phased out from core areas of tiger reserves.

I could not quite make the connect. What was a Baiga tribal doing in the conference? For long, these ‘wildlife activists’, many of whom own resorts and lodges in national parks and sanctuaries, have been advocating eviction of tribals from such areas to create inviolate space for tigers. They argue that tribals living in wildlife habitats harm the wildlife and even oppose the provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 which recognises tribals’ rights over forest resources in such areas. So, how come this new found bond with a Baiga?

The conference started at 12 noon. Among the speakers were Belinda Wright, head of Wildlife Protection society of India, Vishal singh, head of TOFT, India, Latika Rana, a tiger ecologist and Amit Sankhala, a wildlife tourism operator and the grandson of founder of Project Tiger, Kailash Sankhala.  They argued that tourism should not be stopped in the core areas as it helps wildlife conservation. For this, they presented data from the tiger reserves across the country, showing the reserves that support high wildlife tourism are the ones that have the highest  density of  the big cats. They claimed there was no scientific study to suggest that tourism harms wildlife. “Rather it provides protection for wild animals by providing an extra layer of monitoring,” said a speaker.

Sitting quietly, flanked on either side by the speakers, was Sonsai Baiga. He was clad in his traditional attire, including a garland and a headgear.  The tribal displaced from Kanha National Park, who has never travelled out of the region, was flown to Delhi by the organisers. TOFT presented his case study to show how tourism has been benefitting local communities.

Sonsai’s family was thrown out of the park in 1973. “We were not given any compensation for that,” he said. He, now, works as a daily wage labourer for the forest department and hardly earns Rs 100 per day. To sustain himself, he has formed a dance cooperative that performs in the lodges for the tourists in Kanha. “Through this, the community now earns additional income with an opportunity to preserve and sustain their traditional culture,” said Singh of TOFT.

I was amazed, and so were other journalists sitting in the hall. “For long, you have been advocating evicting communities from the core areas of tiger reserves without caring for their rights. Now you are playing the same community card to give weight to your demand for continuing tourism in such areas. It seems the wildlife lobby lacks  introspection,” said a TV journalist present at the conference. “Unfortunately, it does not work like that,” added a senior correspondent from a leading daily.   

To make things more clear, TOFT representatives and activists were asked if they would support the claims of the likes of Sonsai Baiga under FRA to reclaim the loss he suffered due to eviction. Belinda Wright and Singh said they won’t. “The national parks should be made inviolate of people. The 24-hour habitation of people affects the behaviour of wildlife. Tourists come only for 6-7 hours and do not harm the forest or wildlife,” said Wright. Her family owns a lodge in Kanha.

But reluctant to share profits with tribals

“If tourism is benefitting communities, was there any data to show how much revenue from tourism has been shared with local communities?” piped another reporter. The answer was “no”. The tiger task force had recommended that 30 per cent of the revenue from the wildlife tourism should be shared with communities. When asked if TOFT was ready to do that, Wright countered it by saying the recommendation was not for 30 per cent but for 5 per cent revenue sharing. When journalists asserted that it was 30 per cent, most speakers shied away from answering, saying they cannot comment without consulting other members of TOFT.  The journalist said he wanted the answer as the press meet was called by TOFT and there was enough representation of the organisation. After much reluctance, Singh replied, “30 per cent is too much for us. We cannot share more than 5 per cent of it with the communities.”

The wildlife tourism operators have given their decision on sharing benefits with communities. The court is yet to decide whether it should allow such tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves. The court hearing is scheduled for November 9.


Down To Earth