Monday, July 15, 2024
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A slippery slope: On the Jim Corbett National Park case, tourism and conservation

The Supreme Court of India has come down heavily on the Uttarakhand government for the felling of about 6,000 trees in the Jim Corbett National Park. That forest officials and a top politician in the State connived to vastly expand the scope of a tiger safari in the park precincts was a travesty of conservation practices, according to the Court. In the judgment by a three-judge Bench, Justice B.R. Gavai observed, “The presence of tigers in the forests is an indicator of the well-being of the ecosystem. Unless steps are taken for the protection of tigers, the ecosystem which revolves around tigers cannot be protected… Events like illegal construction and illicit felling of trees like the one in Corbett cannot be ignored.” The link between political corruption and environmental damage is especially relevant in this case as the Court’s judgment has consequences for the management of wildlife parks, particularly on the question of whether ‘tiger safaris’ in the buffer and fringe zones of wildlife parks gel well with conservation measures. The Court also alluded to various resorts in the vicinity of the park that often played loud music and posed a threat to animals.

Both the Central Zoo Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority are expert bodies affiliated to the Union Environment Ministry, and tasked with the conservation and protection of wild animals. These organisations, in principle, have no objection to the existence of tiger safaris, provided these are conducted within the ambit of an array of guidelines. Wildlife safaris in a designated spot draw attention away from the core zones of the forest and hence promote its inviolate nature as well as raise public awareness about conservation. This is the underlying rationale for safaris. Their overarching aim, thus, ought to be eco-tourism and not commercial tourism. However, in recent times, the argument that this could be a source of employment opportunities for locals, and that State governments should be promoting this, has been gaining ground. The recent translocation of cheetahs from Africa to Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, also aims to revive the cat’s presence and promote tourism. This, however, is a slippery slope and can very easily lead to political capture, as the proceedings in the Corbett Park demonstrate. The Court has recommended that the Centre evolve guidelines on the conduct of safaris and the government would do well to deliver on this at the earliest and be extremely circumspect on its messaging regarding tourism and conservation.

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