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Preserving our parks

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In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards travelling to destinations like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India. With around 85 national parks, 448 wildlife sanctuaries and 10 biosphere reserves in the country, the opportunities for wildlife tourism in these areas are immense. However, with this growing demand for wildlife tourism is the increasing challenge to practice sustainable tourism management. “The conservation of a wildlife ecosystem is a continuous process with new ecological challenges/ issues always coming up. These concerns need to be addressed under a wide range of conservation practices such as – stringent protection of wildlife and its habitat, habitat improvement programmes, research and monitoring, special conservation measures, creation of conservation awareness through eco tourism and involving local communities in conservation, etc,” states Dr Rakesh Shukla, research officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

Minimising mass tourism

“We have to keep the interests of wildlife above the lucrative financial gains involved here.”
Intesar Suhail
Wildlife Warden
Leh-Ladakh

With the growing demand for wildlife tourism, the need to limit the inflow of mass tourists is becoming increasingly important. “Our department has an entry fee system in place, which regulates the tourist inflow to some extent. But the fees charged for entry to Hemis High Altitude National Park are very low (Rs 20 per person per day) and needs to be revised for which a proposal has been submitted to the government. Tourism in our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries has to be sustainable and regulated. We have to keep the interests of wildlife above the lucrative financial gains involved here. I think there should be a more stringent regulatory mechanism in place which can include enhancement of entry fees and fixing seasonal limits to the number of visitors,” explains Intesar Suhail, wildlife warden, Leh-Ladakh.

“Our tourism policy is mainly based on deviating the tourists from the core area.”
Joshil Maliyekkal
Asst. Wildlife Warden
Silent Valley National Park

Silent Valley National Park in a step to minimise the number of tourists visiting its core area is setting up a national interpretation centre and an amenity centre for which it has received a monetary fund of Rs 60 lakh from the Forest Department, Government of Kerala. The national park currently receives an average of 20,000 visitors every year. “The national interpretation centre is expected to reduce inflow of tourists into the core area of the national park. Our tourism policy is mainly based on deviating the tourists from the core area. The national interpretation centre will enable the tourist to know about the rainforest without actually going there. The ones who are serious about wildlife will be allowed to go into Silent Valley or else they will be restricted to the amenity centre and national interpretation centre,” states Joshil Maliyekkal, assistant wildlife warden, Silent Valley National Park.

“Regulations need to be established and strictly enforced to keep tourism activities within sustainable bounds.”
N C Bahuguna
IFS, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife and Chief Wildlife Warden, Government of West Bengal

“There should be restricted entry inside wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and biosphere reserves. All the regulations need to be established and strictly enforced to keep tourism activities within sustainable bounds. Time has come to look back to conserve the fragile environment and biodiversity of national parks side by side with the development of sustainable eco tourism which is the only remedy or alternative to the present day mass tourism, threatening to endanger the potential tourist spots,” opines N C Bahuguna, IFS, principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife and chief wildlife warden, Government of West Bengal.

Integrating efforts

Manas National Park

Apart from restricting the inflow of mass tourists to protect the national parks, there is also a need to integrate the efforts of various stakeholders to practice eco tourism in these areas. Among the various stakeholders, the local community plays a significant role in protecting national parks, if they are involved actively. “The state and local administration with the support and cooperation of the fringe people have taken up steps to improve the social and economic conditions of human population through eco-development, eco-conservation, education and training. Such collaborative exercises are critical for long-term conservation of the Sunderbans National Park’s eco-system,” opines Bahuguna.

Several eco-developmental activities have been undertaken in the recent past in the fringe areas of Sunderbans like – excavation of rain water irrigation canals/channels to increase agricultural production which has helped in doubling the agricultural production from the region. Providing solar lights to the people in these villages in the periphery both for lighting as well as to prevent tigers from straying into the villages. Providing smokeless ‘chullahs’ for optimisation of fuel consumption. Digging of ponds for pisciculture activities by the local people in the buffer areas has helped in fishing of sweet water fish and prawns thus generating income for them. Regular mobile healthcare camps have been organised to provide medical care facilities to the villagers through collaborative efforts of the administration and different NGOs. Efforts are also on to meet local fuel wood demand and reduce the pressure on forest resources of the reserve. Non-mangrove plantations are also being raised along roads and embankments of the fringe area to cater to the needs of the fringe people.

Pathrakkadavu area of Silent Valley

“The idea is to reduce the dependency of the local residents on the forest resources and to uplift the economic conditions of the villagers. We have been working to restrict the impact of these environmental issues on the local community to the lowest possible extent following the several welfare measures undertaken by the state and local administration. Following the measures, there has been no report of either a tiger attacking or killing a villager nor villagers killing a tiger,” assures Bahuguna.

Likewise, Silent Valley National Park has actively engaged the tribal community as part of their conservation efforts. “There are many traditional medicinal practitioners located in Mukkali who collect plant parts in unsustainable ways causing harm to the trees. To combat this problem, we have limited the amount of honey, sap, etc being collected from the tress and are telling them to collect them in a sustainable way. Additionally, we are also providing them with the produce that they are harvesting from the forest. We are also undertaking various initiatives to improve the socio-economic condition of the tribals by purchasing the honey at reasonable rates from them and then selling it at our souvenir shop. We are also conducting tourism with the help of the tribal community by employing them as drivers of park vehicles and as guides for tourists,” states Maliyekkal.

Hemis Altitude National Park

Apart from local communities, other stakeholders like NGOs, the travel trade, the hospitality industry, eco tourism groups, etc are also making significant contributions to the sustainability efforts undertaken by the PAs. Silent Valley National Park has approached WWF India which has agreed to develop the park’s infrastructure, supply the park with equipments like camera trap, GPS, etc. The Kanha management under the MP Forest Department is responsible for addressing all the key environmental issues of Kanha National Park. However, local communities, interested NGOs/ NGIs and people related to the hospitality business are also being encouraged to participate in conservation activities under the existing governmental rules and laws. “The local community is very much involved in these initiatives through over 150 eco-development committees, constituted by the management, and all the year round employment opportunities in various conservation practices,” mentions Shukla.

Adding to it, A Swargowari, IFS, field director, Manas Tiger Project asserts, “Several stakeholders have joined hands to address concerns like poaching of wild animals, encroachment, illegal felling of trees and livestock grazing, both in the core and buffer area of Manas National Park.” Various national and international NGOs like WWF, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), US Fish & Wildlife Service, Aaranyak, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) – are engaged in protection, research, management, and all kinds of sustainable initiatives undertaken by Manas National Park. Local NGOs/eco tourism groups constituting of local youths having knowledge about nature and wildlife are involved in the protection work. Manas Naional Park comes within the administrative jurisdiction of the local council called Bodoland Territorial Council which is responsible for the initiative of community participation. “First of all there is a clear message obviously for saving and protecting Manas National Park. Indeed, local communities have accepted these challenges on their shoulder. Further, there are crystal clear indicators of responsible tourism coming into existence through these initiatives. Everybody will agree that conservation and sustenance will have to move hand in hand, if eco tourism has to remain in position,” opines Swargowari.

Future focus

“Land use outside PAs needs to be zoned such that critical wildlife areas and corridors are not compromised by tourism development.”
Rahul Bhatnagar
DFO, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve

Well managed wildlife tourism can be beneficial for conservation and economic development of local communities living around PAs. However, the impact of disturbance caused to wildlife by tourists, vehicles and infrastructure within PAs has never been properly analysed although many visitors have complained about the poor experience for themselves and the hapless wildlife surrounded by tourist vehicles. Local NGOs have also analysed the poor economic returns to local communities from the current model of tourism prevalent around most Indian PAs. Therefore, while recognising the many potential benefits of tourism for conservation, there is a need for having better designed, managed and regulated tourism in and around India’s PAs.

“A scientific tourism management plan based on the ecological conditions of the reserve needs to be developed and effectively implemented across all PAs. This includes implementation of regulations related to tourism numbers, access, infrastructure and behaviour. The land use outside PAs needs to be zoned such that critical wildlife areas and corridors are not compromised by tourism development. Key corridors and wildlife movement areas around most PAs are well known and these should be excluded from further infrastructure development. Existing tourism infrastructure in such areas should be modified to the extent possible to facilitate wildlife movement,” states Rahul Bhatnagar, DFO, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve.

The primary benefits of tourism should accrue to communities living around these areas who may be bearing the brunt of human-wildlife conflict and other opportunity costs. Models of community based tourism should be encouraged and support to such forms of tourism should take precedence over high-impact tourism. “Buffer areas, private lands, revenue lands and reserve forests around PAs that have good wildlife habitat should be developed for tourism to reduce pressure on sensitive core areas and to enhance local benefits. Situations where undisturbed/inviolate areas are needed to maintain ecological integrity, protect breeding areas or sensitive sites, should exclude tourism. In particular, areas from where local communities have been relocated to reduce disturbance and impacts to biodiversity should also remain free from tourism impacts,” he assets.

For these sustainability initiatives to take place, the government, forest department, individual communities, groups involved in eco tourism and other concerned stakeholders must do their respective task of practising sustainable tourism from all aspects.

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