The Tiger Task Force's report is blinkered to the forest departments' ommissions
Tourists are convenient scapegoats
The state of tigers in India's national parks has caused much outcry. Justifiably so: it appears that over the last year, 22 tigers at the Sariska National Park, Rajasthan have been killed, as have a further 21 at India's "blue-riband" national park, Ranthambore -- also in Rajasthan. The animal is in perilous state in other reserves as well.
For years, Project Tiger officials used unscientific methods to tom-tom the country's tiger population. But the jury is in: Project Tiger's estimates were wildly exaggerated. One of the drivers of these estimates was the funding stream, which directed larger budgets to the most important parks. Another was the numbing bureaucracy within the forest department. Park directors seemed institutionally disinclined to admit that there were any problems with tigers in their reserves.
At Sariska and Ranthambhore, the forest department has been forced to confront -- reality but only as a last resort. Park authorities now admit that a problem exists, but blame others for it! Currently, the mud seems to be sticking to a few individuals who have been critical of the department in the past, and also to the tourists, who have apparently driven all the tigers away with their noisy chatter.
Inexplicably, this astonishing hypothesis has been accepted by the Tiger Task Force (constituted by the prime minister to probe reasons behind the missing tigers) and features prominently in their report. This is a great pity for it masks the real reasons for the decline of tigers in Ranthambhore: the ineffectiveness of the park authorities, and the massive habitat destruction by 50,000 goats, 10,000 buffalo, 5,000 cows and 37 camels that illegally graze at Ranthambore.
But by blaming tourists for decline in tiger numbers, the Tiger Task Force report has let the forest department off the hook. What about the department's accountability? This is an aspect seriously neglected by the report. Where references to accountability can be found -- and they are scarce -- one also finds glaring inconsistency.
For example, how can 22 'lost' tigers in Sariska merit intervention when 21 from the neighbouring reserve at Ranthambhore do not? Similarly nothing is made of the fact that in neither case was it the forest department that brought the matter to anyone's attention.
In any event, this issue of tourist disturbance is hard to take seriously in the light of the many other, routine incursions into the park that are happily sanctioned by the authorities. Pilgrims, for example are allowed unencumbered entry to Ranthambhore in order to worship at shrines within the forest. Each September nearly 100,000 of them -- almost a year's quota of tourists --wander through the core area of the park every day for a week to celebrate the Ganesh Mela. And let's not forget the 50,000 cattle and goats that graze illegally within the park every day!
There are other incriminating factors as well. Among them is the abuse of the infamous " vip quota" where extra vehicles enter the park on "special routes" that take them into the most sensitive, restricted zones.
The Tiger Task Force report is blind to such abuses. Instead, it criticises Ranthambhore's hoteliers for "stressing the ecology". They have apparently been operating "without any building code of environmental standards". Even if it were true, the area occupied by tourist hotels totals less than 1 per cent of Ranthambore's boundary. This area is also the greenest, best-protected, most biodiverse environment to be found outside the park itself. That this fact -- visible from miles away -- was not noticed and applauded in the report indicates to me that the Task Force members either did not visit there or had their eyes closed.
Bernard J Hendy is an UK-based tourism consultant
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