Supreme Court’s interim order banning tourism in core tiger areas raises debate whether there are any guidelines for it and how harmful it can be to the wildlife and its habitat in protected areas.

What exactly constitutes ecotourism is the question thrown up by the Supreme Court’s interim order banning tourism in core tiger areas. Critical to the debate is whether there are any guidelines for it and how harmful it can be to the wildlife and its habitat in protected areas.

A month ago, some conservationists travelled in a jeep to Upper Bhavani in The Nilgiris district. With the hill on one side and a row of wattle trees on the other, on the narrow drive, they came face to face with two Indian Gaurs.

While one Gaur was able to push its way through the wattle trees, an exotic species, through the slope to the valley, the other could not find its way through the densely planted trees and the jeep had to be reversed until the next opening in the thicket. It took nearly 45 minutes for the Gaur to leave the road, and it was quite agitated by the disturbance in its prime habitat. On the way back, the Gaurs were again on the road and the visitors had to wait in silence for another 30 minutes till they found their path to the higher slopes.

A little later in the day, a procession of SUVs carrying 10 to 12 tourists each to one of the most scenic spots in The Nilgiris Biosphere started. It was part of the State Forest Department’s ecotourism initiative, but the department does not get even a rupee in return.

The logbook at the forest office shows that on an average, 12 SUVs, all private ones, are allowed to ply on the ghat road till the catchment area and back. “On weekends, we allow up to two dozen vehicles,” said the forester posted there.

While 70 per cent of the revenue from each trip that costs Rs. 1,100 goes to the tour operators, the rest is spent on the welfare of tribal families in traditional settlements in the area.

“It is regulated between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. but the honking and speeding are scary at times,” said a guard who accompanies tourists during the trips.

“The concept of ecotourism is to rationalise tourist activities in prime wildlife habitats and biodiversity hot spots and is not about throwing open fresh locations for commercial purposes,” says K. Kalidas, founder, OSAI, a Coimbatore-based NGO.

Incidentally, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) draft policy on ecotourism, released in June 2011, has recommended the setting up of a State-level committee, local advisory committees, levy of local conservation cess and each protected area to develop its own eco tourism plan to be notified by 2011 end and put in public, including in the local language.

Laying out stipulations for tiger reserves, the policy states that 20 per cent could be permitted for ecotourism access for reserves larger than 500 sq.km. but with the condition that 30 per cent of the surrounding buffer area should be restored as wildlife habitat in five years. For reserves smaller than 500 sq.km., ecotourism is permitted in 15 per cent of the area with the condition that 20 per cent of the buffer should be restored as a wildlife habitat in five years. It also has given out a formula for the number of vehicles to be allowed in each protected area.

Senior forest officials said the State has a draft policy formulated by the Forest Department and handed over to the Tourism Department, which the government notified in 2010 itself.

This 50-page document is more about community-based approach to ecotourism.

The Forest Department, as such, has no ecotourism policy based on MoEF guidelines, officials admitted.

The MoEF draft guidelines is available at http://www.toftigers.org/ Documents/DraftEcotourism Guidelines2June.pdf

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