Think tourism in India and the first images that will flash through your mind is -- the Taj Mahal and the Indian tiger. Tigers, and the protected areas created for their conservation, are the dominant motif of the picture postcard from favourite holiday destinations. If you've ever seen a tiger postcard, it's an even money bet that the picture is from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve -- one of the most popular tiger reserves in the country.
But don't let the pretty picture fool you -- the situation in Ranthambore is anything but pretty. Conservationists allege that tigers are disappearing from the park at an alarming rate. The crisis has been caused by a number of well-known reasons -- from organised poaching to human pressures on the park's resources. But some believe that there is more to the tiger crisis. The business of hospitality and the mismanagement of tourists could be damaging the park and its magnificent animals. But more importantly, they say that the way this business is organised could be seriously jeopardising the relationships between the animal inhabitants of the park and the humans that live outside.
They say tourism is benefiting a few but hurting many, which is why anger is intensifying against conservation. In this classic and much repeated fight between the rich and the poor, the problem is confounded by the perception that the lawmakers and the beneficiaries are often the same people. People in the town neighbouring the sanctuary will tell you that their problem is that people who direct conservation policies profit from the regulations that promote tourism and park management.
They even believe that this is ultimately hurting the very species that brings tourists to this back of beyond place. Tourism, they say, in the way it is practised in Ranthambore, is part of the scourge that is killing tigers -- slowly but inexorably.
Many conservationists disagree. They say tourism is big bucks, which can be invested in protection. Tourism is pleasure and education, which can help build the constituency to protect, conserve and cherish the wild beasts. But what happens when the owner-proponents of tourism are the same as the manager-proponents of conservation? Does this compromise their position? Does this compromise conservation? kushal pal singh yadav travels to the tiger reserve and then to Jaipur, to see how Ranthambore-style tiger tourism could well decide the Indian tiger's fate.
Tiger tourism is special because here business is based on conservation. If there are no tigers, there will be no tourists. The moot question is what does this business do for conservation?
In 2004-05, the department says that about 100,000 people visited and its receipts at the gate were Rs 1.67 crore. But this is a small proportion of the tourist earning.
The tourists pay the forest department gate fees. But they also pay the hotels charges to stay in their rooms. The volume of this business is more difficult to assess. The Tiger Task Force report, submitted in August 2005 to the prime minister, estimates, on the basis of data supplied to it by officials, that the annual turnover from the 21 top hotels is Rs 21.81 crore. If this is correct, then the park (and tigers) are poor gainers from the business of pleasure and education.
Lack of regulation has meant that many hotels have come up on agricultural or charagah (grazing) land, within a 500-metre radius of the park boundary. "The demand for new hotels has led to the sky-rocketing of land prices," says a local hotelier. Along the Ranthambore road, land prices have gone up from Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh per hectare (ha) 10 years back to anywhere from Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh per ha today, depending on the proximity to the park entrance. "Due to the high prices villagers prefer to sell the land near the park," says Hemraj Meena, a guide at the tiger reserve.
Most hotels are located along the Ranthambore road, which runs from Sawai Madhopur to the park entrance. A number of hotels are located very close to the forest boundary. According to 2003 records of the field director of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, 15 hotels are located within one km of the forest boundary. Of these, 12 are located within 500 metres, three at a distance of zero metre from the forest boundary and one within the forest area (see graphic and table in PDF format: Too close to nature).Since then, more hotels have been added to the category of too-close-for-comfort. In addition, land adjacent to the park is being bought and converted into farms. Many are just buying the land so that they can build hotels in the future. In effect, this high-value real estate is undergoing a transformation -- to the detriment of its original owners and users.
Currently, there are no regulations that determine how close hotels and other commercial establishments can be to the reserve, but there is a general consensus that some distance should be maintained. "There is no locational or land-use policy for areas around the national parks and this has led to a number of hotels being located dangerously close to the forest areas," says Rajesh Gopal, director, Project Tiger. In addition, deviation from traditional land use and conversion of agricultural and grazing land for commercial use is also not regulated.
The effort to bring some regulation has always been stymied, allegedly by powerful tourism interests. The Rajasthan state government tried as early as 1971 to direct that activities around the 'game sanctuary' would be controlled. Its letter number F.7 (515) Rev./7A dated January 15, 1971, from the deputy secretary to the Rajasthan governments' revenue department states: "Government has decided that in the interest of habitants of wildlife and protection of forests no lands in the vicinity of forest will be released for cultivation by the revenue department within two miles of the game sanctuary." Not only was this directive not implemented, commercial use also became rampant. "We are aware that a number of hotels are located very near the forest area but they have all the requisite clearances," says Rajesh Yadav, district collector, Sawai Madhopur. As no clearance, other than permission to set up shop and clearance of building plan is needed, the regulations are not particularly mindful of the imperatives of conservation.
But even what little is required is rarely followed. In November 2004, Yadav ordered a survey of hotels to verify whether the conditions stipulated at the time of building clearance were being met. "We found that a number of conditions, which relate to the built-up area sanctioned, to maintaining a green belt and planting trees around the area, had not been adhered to by almost all the hotels surveyed," says Yadav.
Worse (and perhaps not surprisingly) records for the exclusive and Rs 30,000-a-night Aman-e-Khas hotel were missing. Yadav admits that large-scale change of land use can have adverse effects on the forests around. "A lot of grazing land is being lost due to change of land use," he says. This, in turn, increases pressure on the resources of poor people, who then have no option but to venture into the protected forests for their fodder.
In 2002, a serious attempt was made by the government to regulate the tourist industry. On December 26, 2002, the then secretary (forests) to the government of Rajasthan issued directions that "all construction activities in this zone (within 500 metres of the park boundary) will be banned. There will be a total freeze in extension of existing structures". "Existing land use pattern will not be changed," said the firmly worded directive.
But so powerful were the interests the government was taking on that in May 2003 -- less than six months later -- the directive had to be relaxed. The same official issued another order saying that the "ban" was relaxed because "immediate application of this order had inadvertently hit adversely some hotel projects". Now the state government maintained that "all the ongoing hotel projects which have been affected by the order dated 26th December, 2002, may be granted a special relaxation for taking up construction within 500 metres of the Ranthambore National Park". But so obviously embarrassed was the government that the letter added uncharacteristically that this relaxation had been given as a "very, very special case".
The fact is that the damage had been done. Local newspapers reported that beneficiaries of the government's about turn were top hotels like Aman-E-Khas -- the foreign luxury chain whose domestic links are unclear but open to much local speculation.
This has the following results. One, that people are buying land as close to the park as possible in the anticipation of another 'relaxation'. This correspondent saw a number of empty plots enclosed by boundary walls hardly a few metres from the park boundary. "People have been buying all the available land near the park in the hope that some day another round of clearances will take place," says a local hotelier.
Two, people have no regard for the directive, which was 'bent' under pressure. For instance, the condition, regarding the "total freeze in extension of existing conditions" was still in force. However, Down To Earth (dte) saw number of new constructions taking place within the 500-metre radius. Right next to Nahargarh hotel (360 metres from the forest boundary) a new building was being constructed.
Whether the new constructions were being carried out with permission from the forest department or the district administration could not be ascertained since the owners were not present at the hotel when the dte team visited. In fact, another new building was being constructed a few hundred metres from Nahargarh hotel, .
Three, since some property cases connected to this regulation concerned key conservationists or their relatives, the anger of local people turned against the park and its protection.
The boom in tourism and the rush of outsiders has created new tensions in the area. Villagers in and around the park resent the fact that outsiders have taken over prime land and are making huge money out of the park, while they have got nothing. And it's not just that they have been deprived of the fruits of the tourism boom. What really angers them is that tourism has grown at their expense. On the one hand, they cannot go into the park -- to, say, let their livestock graze. On the other hand, they have lost the pastures outside the forest. This causes deep resentment and anger.
The park is then the sufferer. In 2000, police fired 17 rounds to disperse villagers protesting against the park and its policies. In 2002, villagers allegedly assaulted police, who retaliated by opening fire, killing one person. The inhabitants of this village, Uliana, then invaded the park and laid siege inside with their animals. It lasted a month and was lifted only after high-level political intervention. Even today, Ranthambore simmers.
As a result, security has been stepped up. In the past few years, a boundary wall has been constructed around the park. Orders have also been issued banning all grazing in the park, even in areas designated sanctuaries, where the law permits people to take their animals. This has exacerbated hostility. As a result, the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary has been deployed to guard the reserve. But tensions still abound and tiger protection has been compromised.
The presence of tourists is not, however, the sole reason for discontent among the local people and villagers. It is well known in the area that a number of conservationists, the people who supposedly insist that the villagers should be removed from and kept out of the reserve, own hotels and properties in prime land just next to the park. "While we are not allowed to take a single blade of grass from anywhere near the park, conservationists make crores out of it. In addition, they have bought land next to the park and have constructed houses, and run hotels and guest houses," says Kalyan Meena, ex- sarpanch of Uliana, which has a particularly antagonistic relationship with the forest administration.
Among those who own houses and hotels near the park are Valmik Thapar, well-known conservationist and member of the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee, and his relatives, and Fateh Singh Rathore, former field director of Ranthambore and now vice-chairman of Tiger Watch, a non-governmental organisation (ngo), and his family. These properties are within 500 metres of the forest boundary. "Hotel Sher Bagh located at a distance of 104 metres from the forest boundary is run by Jaisal Singh, Thapar's nephew," says Chandu Sharma, a local journalist. "Sher Bagh is a deluxe tented camp owned by Valmik Thapar's family," confirms wildlifeworldwide.com.
Fateh Singh's son, Goverdhan Singh Rathore has a house in the same area. A few 100 metres from Sher Bagh, and about 150 metres from the park boundary, is another farmhouse. "A foreign lady lives in this house but since foreigners cannot own land here the land has been registered in the name of Usha Singh, wife of Goverdhan Singh," says a local hotelier, who prefers not to be named. Next to Thapar's house is a building called White House. "The registry for this house was earlier in the name of Fateh Singh but the current status is not known," says Sharma. "Managed by Goverdhan Singh and his wife Usha, White House is located within half a kilometre of the Ranthambore National Park...overlooks a waterhole, which attracts an abundance of birds, butterflies and wildlife...Leopards are regular visitors..." advertises the same wildlife holiday website. This correspondent verified the land records from the local revenue department. In February 1983, it took back the land and a case was filed against Fateh Singh. At this time, Fateh Singh was the director of the park.
But litigation continued. In 1993, the Rajasthan High Court issued directives to "quash the order dated 24th February 1975 of the collector, Sawai Madhopur, cancelling the allotment of both the petitioners, i.e. Heeralal and Badri...out of khasra number 58 situated in Madhosinghpura...". Despite the order, the Bairwas didn't get possession.
In 1994, responding to another petition, the high court quashed the 1983 order cancelling the allotment to Fateh Singh. In this case, the government complied -- Fateh Singh got possession in 1998. Later he sold parts of the land. The Oberoi group's Hotel Vanya Vilas is located on it. Asked why he sold land which he got for social forestry, Fateh Singh said: "I am doing social forestry and have planted thousands of trees. The Oberois bought the land because there were large numbers of trees."
The controversy is still alive. "(It) is being created by the forest department because I have exposed their shortcomings," Fateh Singh says. Foresters say whenever they try to regulate his businesses, they are either transferred or evidence of tiger losses is unearthed.
In 2002, the forest department ordered a fresh survey of the area to demarcate forest land. The survey report, submitted in January 2003, said the land on which these properties were located was forest land in their records. As a result, a joint survey -- of the forest, revenue and settlement departments -- was ordered. It's still hanging fire. The forest department survey was done on the basis of maps of the state land survey division, which were not certified. Intriguingly, certified maps were 'untraceable' in the revenue department. But the forest department points out that according to topographic sheet number 54B/8 of the Survey of India this land was in the forest area.
There have been other cases. In 2003, a warrant was issued against Fateh Singh for selling a plot of government land, claiming it was his. He got bail but the case continues. In July 2005, his daughter-in-law got permission to convert agricultural land for commercial purposes, within 500 metres of the forest boundary. This was cleared in violation of a ban. After newspapers reported the case, the status quo was restored.
But what, if anything, does all this have to do with conservation of tigers? The problem is that tourism is growing, unchecked and unregulated, inside and outside the park, which many argue is leading to increasing and unsustainable stress on the tigers.
But tiger experts like Fateh Singh disagree. Singh told dte that tourism is not even remotely the cause of the crisis in the park. The question is how credible is their view if they have personal interests in the business.
The number of tourists visiting Ranthambore has more than doubled in seven years. With lucrative business coming the park's way, management of tourism also changed hands in 2004. Ranthambore is the only park in India in which the management of tourism has been handed over -- because of conservationist pressure -- to the state tourism department.
The system is convoluted and corrupt. Entry into the national park is regulated through what is called a roster system. Every day 20 Gypsies and 15 Canters, registered with the forest department, are allowed to enter the park, once in the morning and once in the evening, for a three-hour trip. About 350 seats are available for each trip, which are sold through the tourism department. But the demand is much higher, because of the large numbers of hotels springing up near the park. All the tourists want to get a glimpse of the tiger. The result is a mad rush for tickets, leading to skirmishes and allegations of nepotism and corruption.
During the peak season between September and April, travel agents jam booking queues making it impossible for genuine tourists to get seats. The only way a tourist can get one is by paying a mark-up on the entry and jeep charges to the agents. When dte visited Ranthambore in July, the park was closed for the monsoon break. Even at that time there was a queue outside the booking window, which was to open after a few days. Some people earn their living jamming the queues.
The tourism department also controls the allotment of routes on which vehicles ply. Vehicles enter the park through one gate. There are seven designated routes inside the park, numbered 1-7. Each route can be completed clockwise or anti-clockwise. Each vehicle is designated a certain route and has to follow it. Ideally, the tourism department is expected to allow an equal number of vehicles on each route. But that doesn't happen. "We have noticed that on certain routes more vehicles have been allowed compared to other routes," says Govind Sagar Bhardwaj, former deputy conservator of forest (core area) of the reserve. Certain routes are known for more frequent tiger sightings. Most vehicles are allowed on these routes. "This leads to crowding of vehicles at certain points, disturbing the wildlife," adds Bhardwaj. But the department pleads helplessness. Its only role is to issue permits and to collect gate fees. "If we stop any vehicle, which is transgressing rules we are bullied and shown the door," the forest guards say.
Tiger Watch did an analysis of 15,310 visitor response forms. It revealed that of the seven designated routes, route number 7 accounted for 53 per cent of traffic inside the park in 2001-02 and 30 per cent in 2002-03. This was the tiger sighting route.
This trend has the park managers worried. In a letter dated March 28, 2005, the deputy conservator of forests (dcf) in charge of the park wrote to his boss: "I have written a number of letters to state tourism department regarding a very high disproportionate way of allotting vehicles to different routes in Ranthambore National Park by assistant director tourism, Sawai Madhopur. For instance on 24th and 25th March maximum number of vehicles were sent in route numbers 6 and 7. This has resulted in great disturbance to a tigress and her two small cubs in Jhalra area... I would not hesitate to say that our tigers are going out not only from the core area but also from the forest areas to outside less protected areas." In 2003, a tiger from the reserve was found dead on a railway track near Kota, 200 km away. In another instance, a tiger strayed into Mai Kalan village in January 2005 and killed a human.
In another letter the dcf reiterated: "Due to this (disproportionate route allotment) there is a great disturbance to the tigress and her cubs in Berda area of the park. This type of high level of disturbance is likely to interfere with the 'raising of cubs and consequently their recruitment to adulthood', which will ultimately lead to 'rearing depression', that is poor cub survival." Taking cognisance of the complaints, the Project Tiger directorate in March 2005 wrote to the state forest secretary pointing to the disturbance caused by overcrowding and asking for urgent corrective action.
But this view is not shared by the conservationists. They argue better regulation of tourism is the answer. "The numbers and types of vehicles moving around a park -- particularly when they are concentrated in a small area -- obviously need to be controlled. But the priority should be better enforcement and management," says Wright.
Fateh Singh agrees that crowding of vehicles is detrimental but points out that tourism overall cannot be blamed for the problems. "Sariska did not have half the number of tourists or hotels yet the tiger has disappeared," he says.
The forest department believes this is too simplistic an explanation for the stress on the ecosystem. The Project Tiger directorate has issued guidelines to all tiger reserves to regulate the number of tourists visiting the park according to the carrying capacity of the area. As the number of tourists visiting the park will increase so will the pressure on the park. Already the administration allows more vehicles during the peak season. Hotel owners have been demanding an increase in the number of trips from two to three a day.
It has been suggested that the Gypsies be scrapped and only high-capacity vehicles allowed to enter the park to carry more tourists per trip. "We have sent a proposal to the state government for allowing one kind of vehicle to enter into the park. We are proposing a fleet of plush 20-seater vehicles," says Yadav, the collector.
Conservationists have, on record, favoured the transfer of management to the tourism department. "The forest department is inept at running tourism inside the park," says Fateh Singh. The forest department disagrees. "Knowing the park inside out, we can handle it better," says an official. A union of forest employees comprising guards, cattle guards and drivers want tourism management to be handed over to their welfare society. "We have the greatest interest in protecting the park and face hardships. So let us be responsible for managing tourism," says Mahendra Singh, a forest department driver.
The latest buzz is that conservationists say even the tourism department has been found inept. They will demand that park management and tourism should be handled by a third party -- tiger experts -- say local hacks. The latest is that the chief minister has cleared the setting up of a board to run the park (see box: Hostile takeover). Locals see in this, the final piece of the puzzle -- from land, hotels to management -- falling in place.
Ranthambore is emblematically about a paradigm of conservation, in which villagers have no stake. There are four villages with a population of 700 in the core area of the park; 25 with a population of 8,642 in the entire tiger reserve and 96 villages within a 2-km radius of the reserve with a population of over 100,000. Between 1975 and 1979, 11 villages with a total population of 681 and total livestock of 3,879 were relocated from the reserve. Eight villages were moved to an area called Kailashpuri while three, Lahapur, Nagadi and Ranthambore, were relocated to Gopalpura. Both the sites were on the fringes of the park and did not decrease pressure on it significantly.
Gopalpura demonstrates all that is wrong with relocation programmes. About 50 families live in the village, without electricity. Recently one house managed to get power, but it belongs to an outsider who brought land in the village. "We were removed forcibly from our villages. The forest department made countless verbal promises but none were fulfilled," says Jagdeesh Sharma, a resident. Villagers say the land on which they were relocated is infertile. Fateh Singh, then with the forest department, says in retrospect: "I had warned against relocating in this area as the land there was not good."
Villagers don't even have water for irrigation. Many have sold their land and moved to Jaipur to work as labourers. "When we were relocated we were promised electricity, water, a school and medical facilities. We got nothing," says Sat Narain Gujjar. A school was constructed four years back. But it is only till class 5. There is not a single matriculate person in the village, villagers say. There is no road access to the village. And there are no medical facilities.
The number of livestock per household has fallen from 50 to two or three. Grazing is still a problem. "Since we were not given land to grow fodder we have to enter the forest," says a villager. "While their (forest department's) animals enter our village and destroy whatever standing crop that we have, our animals are not allowed to go into the forests," says another. "Why were we relocated so near the park?" the villagers ask. They want to move. "What has this park given us? We don't get any benefit from tourism but pay a heavy price," says Sat Narain. It's the same at Kailashpuri. The nearest bus stand is 5 km away, the nearest dispensary 7. Most people work as labourers in Sawai Madhopur or Jaipur.
Even conservationists agree that relocation is in shambles in Ranthambore. "At the time of rehabilitation, the forest department had only given verbal assurances of providing facilities like a well for drinking water, a school building and most importantly levelling the land allocated...But these promises were not fulfilled. Even the well was left half dug ... . Availability of fodder and drinking water for livestock was scarce ... and, therefore, the animal husbandry occupation of the rehabilitated families was adversely affected. They could not develop agriculture too, because the land was of poor quality and it had not been a traditional occupation for this community," notes Ranthambhor Revisited , a Worldwide Fund for Nature report.
The villages within the core of the park are worst off. The Tiger Task Force had, on its visit to Ranthambore, visited one such village, Indal, and encountered abject poverty. It says "this is real indictment of the process of relocation".
Uliana and Mai Kalan, located in the fringe area, have, however, taken a confrontationist route. "Our animals are right now inside the park for grazing," says Sitaram Meena. The villagers had not even allowed the construction of the forest boundary wall near their village. "We have no option. Tourism does not give us anything," says Kalyan Meena. "Selling milk is our main source of income. Give us an alternative and we are ready to sell our animals."
It's the same in Mai Kalan. About 50-60 villagers with over 200 cattle were in the park when dte visited. "We are fighting for survival," says a villager.
One, regulations for managing the commercial tourist business remain virtually non-existent. The question is why conservationists -- who are on key decision-making bodies -- have been successful in other measures -- like the complete ban on grazing in the park -- but been unable to ensure that the commercial interests of tourism are restrained. Instead, all efforts to regulate land use and manage tourist pressure have been foiled.
Two, unbridled and unmanaged tourism will definitely damage the park and its animals. The question is whether people with interests in the business can indeed be part of the regulatory mechanisms. For instance, if there are attempts to restrain the number of tourists entering the park, or restrict further construction of hotels in the vicinity of the forests, will the position of conservationists not be compromised?
Today, the distrust in Ranthambore between the protectors of the tiger and the local inhabitants is so deep that even the recent news that poachers have confessed to killing tigers is not believed. Local papers have carried stories alleging that these "confessions" are part of the plan to take over the park -- for tourism and rich visitors (see box: Hostile takeover). Such antagonism will be detrimental to tigers.
But Ranthambore raises more fundamental questions. The fact is that tigers are being protected as a public trust, on public resources. Should the business of tourism, based on public resources, not be regulated so that it gives back to conservation? All the model now offers is a few jobs for locals -- and charity for tigers. But if there was no tiger, there would be no tourist. What then should be a conservation-based tourism model?
Protecting tigers in a populous and poor country like India will inevitably lead to hardships for people who share forests with wild species. The question is can we reinvent the model so that benefits are shared. Ranthambore is under siege today -- a war zone, where tigers are under fire. In this battle, the tiger will not win. And we will all lose.
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