Let's not slander conservationists

Wildlife needs conservationists from all walks of life, including those running eco-tourism

Published: Tuesday 31 January 2006

Let's not slander conservationists

-- In many countries, wildlife tourism is an important revenue source for conservation; it plays a crucial role in raising awareness on conservation issues and is also an 'industry' that has a friendly role in improving the lot of communities, living in remote areas with limited access to livelihood options. However, if not managed appropriately, wildlife tourism can have many negative effects. In India, the tourist infrastructure in the wilderness areas is not yet well-developed, except around a few protected areas (pas).

As a result, national parks and sanctuaries carry a heavy tourist burden. Many of the visitors to these areas are not so much wildlife tourists as people looking to experience nature, picnic by a river, walk through a forest, watch birds or simply get away from the pollution of the urban environment for a few hours. Forest and wilderness areas outside the pa network can cater to such visitors. If developed appropriately, these areas could filter and reduce the number of those entering parks and sanctuaries.

Tourist filters Such filters are necessary because tourism can be a double-edged sword and the costs may not always be obvious. For example, elephants provided by the government to a pa for patrolling purposes may be diverted to carry tourists to 'tiger shows', increasing revenue but reducing vigilance against poaching. Revenue earning and habitat management for tourism can take precedence over biodiversity conservation. For example, Rajasthan's Ranthambhore National Park's popularity outstripped its ability to cater to tourists putting inordinate demands on forest department personnel.

Unfair charge But why are outspoken conservationists denigrated with accusations of having economic interests in tourism. It is suggested that the business interests undermine their arguments for conservation.

This is a facetious argument. A conservationist can be from any walk of life: an engineer, doctor, lawyer, journalist or an entrepreneur with a tourism-related business. Why should those committed to the preservation of wildlife and the environment be excluded from any business, including wildlife tourism? After all, conservationists are likely to run their business in much more eco-friendly manner compared to people who don't have such background.

Greater issues Of course one might turn around and argue that a conservationist's views might be coloured by his/her business concerns. But this would be no more worrying than the influences of other professions -- a lawyer, an engineer or a physician -- upon conservation. Surely the argument is the greater issue, not the influences that go into its formation. The argument should be countered on merit, and not villified.

Furthermore, many of us would like to see communities who live around pa s benefit more from tourism in these parks. This is necessary for ethical reasons and is also based on sound economic logic: after all people with an economic interest in wildlife are quite likely to desire its preservation. But then why denigrate one group of people for practicing something that is advocated for others.

Stand together Today, wildlife and the natural environment are under threats, more severe than ever before. The solutions are not simple and very likely to be multifarious. It's therefore imperative that those working for the environment resolve their differences through dialogues. Internecine conflicts among such people will only leave the ground open for those with vested interests in destruction of the environment.

We shall all be losers then.

Joanna Van Gruisen is a conservationist who has worked in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan

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