While the "warning" to tiger conservationists against the PIL might seem puzzling, it has long been an open secret that many conservationists run highly profitable tourism enterprises.

A recent email written by the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of Madhya Pradesh, asking tour operators to “take whatever steps you think will be appropriate to protect your interests” in the core areas of the tiger reserves of the State, has brought the forest department's conservation efforts under scrutiny.

The email was written by CWLW H.S. Pabla on November 14, five days after a public interest litigation (PIL), filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court by Ajay Dube of Prayatna, an environment group, sought, among other things, a complete ban on tourism in core areas of tiger reserves.

The email asks international wildlife tour organisations to make sure the PIL “does not succeed” by impleading themselves as affected parties. Subsequently, a number of intervention applications have been filed in the High Court by the tour operators “concerned” as affected parties.

The addressees who have been asked to protect their interests include representatives of the Taj Hotels and those of Travel Operators For Tigers (TOFT), an international wildlife tour organisation, among others.

TOFT was reportedly instrumental in getting the State forest department to push a proposal in the Ministry of Environment and Forests to allow for patches of forest reserves to be handed over to them to be run as South African-style safaris where rich tourists could be catered to. The Ministry rejected the proposal.

Conservationists' role

The list includes renowned tiger experts and conservationists Dhruv Singh and Hashim Tyabji, with one of them holding top positions at TOFT and being owner-partners of Baghvan, a tourist resort in the Pench Tiger Reserve, the scenic backdrop of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book.

While the “warning” to tiger conservationists against the PIL might seem puzzling, it has long been an open secret that many conservationists run highly profitable tourism enterprises.

Tourist activities in core areas have been clearly stated as inimical to tiger conservation under Section 38V (4) (i) of the Wild Life Protection Act, and under the revised guidelines (2008, para 4.17) of Project Tiger, the Centrally sponsored tiger conservation scheme launched in 1972.

The NTCA's response to the PIL maintains this stand while defining the word inviolate to mean “any disturbance by humans” and emphasising that the word needs to be read in toto following the 2006 amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) response also states that the amendment has “strengthened the hands of the Chief Wildlife Warden to achieve the same.”

While sources in the NTCA maintain that the CWLW's actions are in direct conflict with his role as the chief conservationist of the State, Mr. Pabla clarified to The Hindu that as a professional, he had to maintain correspondence with all stakeholders in such matters, but refused to comment further since the matter was sub judice.

The sources told The Hindu that senior officials of the Madhya Pradesh forest department and several other retired and serving senior bureaucrats had interests in tourism activities in and around the Panna, Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves.

When asked, Mr. Pabla refuted such allegations. “Neither I, nor any relative of mine anywhere in the world, have any interests in tourism activities in core areas, and to the best of my knowledge, none of the forest officials in M.P. does,” he said.

‘We like tourism'

“We like tourism — it gets us revenue and supports conservation. The State government will be opposing the PIL officially,” a senior forest official told The Hindu.

The Madhya Pradesh government has consistently maintained a pro-tourism stand for the core areas of tiger reserves. It recently gave the ‘Tourism Friendly Forester' award to Mr. Pabla, who was instrumental in launching the ‘Patrolling the Tiger land' initiative, allowing tourists to visit core areas of tiger reserves from October.

Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had expressed shock at the initiative and requested the State government to stop it. However, forest officials maintain that the initiative is “suspended temporarily.”

“We don't want to throttle tourism, but it needs to be regulated and gradually phased out of core areas in keeping with the Wildlife Protection Act,” NTCA member secretary Rajesh Gopal told The Hindu.