SC tourism ban opens can of worms in reserves

The state temporarily shut the doors of Tadoba for tourists, following the Supreme Court ban verdict on July 24. However, those watching the developments feel the ruling that might build pressure on states to notify buffer zones around tiger reserves has also opened a can of worms in Maharashtra.

“Buffer zones are being delayed in several states to protect political interests. Though the situation in Maharashtra is good, with buffer zones around Pench, Tadoba and Melghat notified two years ago, Sahyadri buffer is being delayed,” said Nana Khamkar, an NGO working to save Sahyadri.

States have been granted three weeks to notify buffers and file comments on utilization and restrictions in core and buffer areas.

The petition by Ajay Dubey of Prayatna, Bhopal, will come up for final arguments on August 22. Even Dubey believes buffer zones should be notified and tourism shifted there, so core areas remain inviolate (completely devoid of humans).

However, Kishor Rithe, president, Satpuda Foundation, feels unless villages inside reserves are relocated, these areas cannot become inviolate. The pressure of villagers inside the parks is more than tourists, he said.

The ban on tourism will have severe implications for Vidarbha’s three tiger reserves.

“Our tourism infrastructure is just coming up. For 4-5 tiger reserves with high-end tourism, all reserves in India cannot be punished. You need site-specific measures,” Rithe said.

“Vidarbha is full of forests and a model based on tiger tourism and allied activities can work well here. Do you want to promote coal mines after imposing tourism ban?” asked Prafulla Bhamburkar, manager, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

Wildlife activist Bandu Dhotre of Eco-Pro, Chandrapur, feels the ban is an ‘arm-twisting’ tactic to get the buffers notified. “As it is, parks are closed in monsoon. By the time they reopen, court will itself clear the picture,” he felt.

However, there are many practical problems that need to be addressed before the ban. For example, Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) cancelled all reservations in forest guesthouses inside the core. However, officials are silent regarding effect of SC order on tourists using the two highways passing through the ‘core’ of the reserve.

With sightings rare, there is no tiger tourism in MTR, which is a famous monsoon and forest tourism destination with 24,000 visitors generating Rs19 lakh revenue. There are hardly any private resorts here, with most tourist accommodations owned by the government and situated inside the core area. “If tourism is banned, how will locals participate in conservation?” asked Rithe.

He says there are 20 villages in MTR, and till they are resettled outside, how do you differentiate between tourist and locals. It is also essential to continue civil supplies and transportation to these villages.

The two highways – Paratwada-Dharni and Akot-Harisal state highway are open even during the night, which should stop as per the court order.

The Purna-Khandwa railway route also passed through Wan sanctuary, which is in the core of MTR. Wan railway station is inside the core with people from buffer villages using this station. Park managers are silent on banning train traffic.

Another issue is of temple tourism with Dhargad temple inside the core visited by thousands during July-August. Many cook food, consume wine, and litter the area. Maybe, the SC order would prove helpful in stopping this biotic pressure!