Multiple-use buffer land promotes a mode of conservation that includes human needs. If they work as intended, there’s no need to bemoan the ban of tourism in core areas, says Divya Vasudev

In late July this year, the Supreme Court temporarily banned tourism in core regions of tiger reserves. This brought up two important issues. One, the effect of tourism on tiger populations, positive or negative, has been much discussed in the news. But the very vociferousness of the response of tourism advocates to the Supreme Court ban raises another issue, which is that of the buffer. The Supreme Court allows tourism in the buffer zones of tiger reserves and it does not restrict tourism in regions that are not tiger reserves. Yet, tourist operators seem to have treated the developments of the Court as a blanket ban on all their activities. Which begs the question: Are the buffers of our Tiger Reserves so devoid of wildlife to be of no use whatsoever to eco-tourism?

The basic premise of demarcating buffers is self-explanatory. Buffers serve to filter pressures existing outside of conservation lands from affecting core regions. Buffers are essentially meant to be multiple-use areas that allow for human activities while ensuring benefits for the inviolate core. This happens via the presence of wildlife, flora and fauna, in the buffer regions itself. These multiple-use regions also promote a mode of conservation that is inclusive of humans. People live and work on these lands, co-existing with wild animals.

Incomplete implementation

India initiated the formation of cores and buffers decades ago, along with the formulation of Project Tiger. But like many other innovative ideas in our country, the actual demarcation process was not followed through in most parks. The distinction between National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries or core and buffer means little to most people. Speaking statistics, the Project Tiger website lists the area covered by core regions of Tiger Reserves to be 32,137 sq. km. This amounts to around one per cent of the geographic area of our country. Going by claims that protected areas occupy 4-5 per cent of our land, this is 20-25 per cent of the protected areas in our country. So why has the prevention of tourism in this one per cent of land caused wide-scale panic in the tourism community?

Perhaps the answer lies in a quote. Tourist operators in Ranthambore spoke to The Guardian about their woes. Land earmarked for buffer in their region has “very little flora or fauna” and is “littered with gravel mines”, so far away from the core that they believe tigers would have to walk 35 miles to reach these regions. The buffer in their region, they say, is “not anywhere tourists would want to visit – let alone tigers”. A figment of truth seeps out from these statements; buffers in these tourist spots are far from what they are intended to be: lands shared by humans and wildlife. They are either wastelands available at no cost for bureaucratic paperwork, or a hard-liner argument that multiple-use landscapes are for idealists.

Perfect balance

I made a recent trip to that wildlifer’s paradise, Masai Mara. The landscape was amazing and the fauna of the region a must-watch, but the Masai tribesmen living at the park boundaries are hardly well-off. This made me do a little internet research and I came across a place adjacent to the protected region called the Naibosho Conservancy. The conservancy is the result of a business agreement between the Mara tribesmen who own the land and a tourist-cum-businessman. Eco-tourism in this region is outside the ‘core’ of the park, the benefits feed directly into the local communities and the wildlife, from being rare, now flourish in the region. This is a buffer in its true sense. An area that serves livelihood purposes for its human residents while being habitat, albeit a secondary one, for its faunal residents.

Some states in India have had fewer problems with the Supreme Court ban. Assam is an example. Tourism, operators have said, is not in core regions and the ban, therefore, is irrelevant in their tiger reserves. But I have been to Manas as well as Kaziranga. Manas has three ranges, and tourism runs straight through the middle of the central and best protected range in the park. Jeep trails within Kaziranga traverse each of its four ranges purportedly within a tourism zone, whose demarcation is a state-kept secret.

The core of Kaziranga might become more transparent however, with the pressure of the Supreme Court on the one hand and the tourist lobby on the other. As NTCA member and Assam conservationist Firoz Ahmed stated to The Telegraph, the government “will have to work on a strategy so that the core area of Kaziranga National Park is restricted to only a certain portion, allowing tourists to visit areas that are outside…” A statement that defies logic, when we consider that the fundamental premise behind demarcating core zones was to set aside the best tiger habitat for the tiger. An unintended consequence of the Court order could easily be governments declaring regions of high faunal density, and thus, of high tourism value, as buffers and the remaining regions, perhaps the degraded ‘gravel mines’ that tourists do not want to visit, as cores.

Necessary control

The issue here is not really one of the impacts of eco-tourism on wildlife. Most people agree that tourism has its benefits but needs stringent controls. The Court did not ban tourism in buffer regions, nor did it restrict activities in forests not declared as Tiger Reserves. Their actions were relevant to one per cent of India’s lands. To call this a devastating blow to tourism is to state that the remaining 99 per cent of lands in India are of no value whatsoever in terms of eco-tourism. In other words, 99 per cent of our lands are empty or near-empty of wildlife. Given that most tourists in India alight on safaris just for that glimpse of a tiger, this still doesn’t sit right.

When the Wildlife Institute of India released estimates of tiger populations we rejoiced that tigers still roamed outside of our protected areas; but now, suddenly, they do not? The Centre has claimed that “the common citizen would be deprived of an opportunity to appreciate our natural heritage” with this ban. To decry a violation of rights is to admit that our natural heritage lies solely within one per cent of our lands. And this, more than any debate on the pros and cons of tourism, is shocking. Which of these perspectives of reality is the truth? Is the tourism industry crying wolf? Or are we truly pocketing our wildlife to a measly one per cent of our lands?