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Mudumalai redraws eco-tourism map

Safety net:A big cat at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The government is attempting to get jeepdrivers there to fall under the remit of the Eco-Development Council.— File Photo: Special Arrangement

Safety net:A big cat at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The government is attempting to get jeepdrivers there to fall under the remit of the Eco-Development Council.— File Photo: Special Arrangement  

Tamil Nadu government moves to regulate ‘illegal’ tourism by jeep drivers in the tiger reserve

‘Illegal’ tourism in the “buffer zone” of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, mostly organised and conducted by private jeep drivers, continues to affect wildlife. ‘Buffer zone’ is the area adjoining the reserve forest.

In a bid to regulate this form of ‘tourism,’ the forest department is making a bold attempt to get taxi drivers to fall under the remit of the Eco-Development Council, whereby the environment as well as the livelihood of local jeep drivers can be protected.

Speaking to The Hindu , Deputy Director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR), V.A. Saravanan, said illegal tourism in the core area of the reserve had already been stopped by the forest department.

However, jeep drivers continued to ferry passengers into forested areas in the buffer zone, often organising “jungle” and “night safaris.” A jeep driver who spoke to The Hindu said the fares varied, as some foreign tourists were more than willing to pay up to Rs. 1,000 for rides along various routes, including Moyar and Bokkapuram, which are between six and 12 kilometres away from where the rides start at Masinagudi.

Mr. Saravanan said three rounds of talks had been held with jeep drivers who were urged to agree to some conditions, after which their services would be legalised and regulated by the forest department. “We told them that they can even use the main roads in the core areas, but only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” he said.

Under the forest department’s proposal, more than 200 vehicles would come under the Eco-Development Council of MTR. Tourists and the public could use the vehicles, after buying tokens from the department. “This will ensure that the drivers get a steady stream of business, and there is also a sustainable model in place for forest conservation,” Mr. Saravanan said.

Although many drivers have agreed to the plan, divisions have developed between members of two drivers’ unions, leading to an impasse between the drivers and the forest department. S. Shiva, a member of the Indian Drivers’ Association (IDA), one of two unions whose members run jeeps in Masinagudi, said since the forest department’s move of cutting off their access to the core area had already affected their business, it was difficult to arrive at a consensus.

“Not all our drivers feel it is in the best interests to work with the EDC,” Mr. Shiva said. “Many have got used to a steady income through ‘illegal tourism.’ It is going to be difficult to survive on lower incomes with so much regulation,” he said.

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