A Tiger Shouldn’t Have To Earn Its Keep
They say to see a tiger you should hope you don’t see a tiger. It’s only if you casually pretend no interest, will the elusive animal reveal itself.
On visits to forests, I would pray for a sighting, often to no avail. I’d rush back to the place where I was staying, which had signboards where people wrote down their morning and evening sightings. Amongst entries of fish eagles, elephants, crocodiles, and sambar deer, there would often be a tiger, seen from the elephant back or at a water hole. ‘Mama, that man didn’t even really want to see a tiger’, I would say peevishly to my family as a little girl. Of course, I was wrong - every tourist on safari wants to see the tiger, even if it is to the detriment of the tiger itself.
In a year full of landslides and rockfalls, Corbett and Rajaji Tiger Reserves—close to the Himalayas—have thrown open their gates wider to tourists in the monsoon for the first time. Most tiger reserves, the most visited wildlife sites in India, are shut during the rainy season. This is a time when the forest is verdant, rejuvenating, and tough to navigate; it is also the time when many birds and animals are breeding. But Uttarakhand says that after losing tourism revenue during the pandemic, keeping the parks open throughout the year is a sound commercial decision. Nagarhole (Karnataka), and the buffer areas of tiger reserves like Kanha, Pench, and Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh) are open throughout the year. But these areas do not face hilly challenges like Corbett, the most famous of tiger reserves. And now perhaps other reserves may also follow Corbett’s example.
Tourism is an important stakeholder in conserving wildlife, in that it provides livelihood to the surrounding community and a means of immersion in the wilderness.
Yet, the purpose of a wildlife sanctuary is not primarily towards tourists – it’s towards the goal of conserving wildlife and ecological processes, which can be secretive, messy, and untamed.
The forest in the monsoon is not a thing to be trifled with.
For one, the human is outnumbered by the impenetrable presence of the wild. Such as the sheer number of things that fly. Bars of soap become slick with stuck insects. Mosquito, tick, and leech bites can go up with wetness. Leave a light on and your room will be full of insects, many of whom swarm in masses after rainfall. Mould, slime, and fungus spread thickly. In the welcome rain, plants grow faster and harder, drinking up moisture and surging as if on steroids. Pathways are quickly overrun. Seasonal streams gurgle to life, flowing like small rivers.
Even dry places can get flooded, stranding people temporarily. Roads need maintenance. Dirt roads are often maintained by making small cross bunds to prevent flooding. Too many vehicles destroy these bunds, in turn damaging the roads. More seriously, animal breeding may be affected by keeping parks open throughout the year. For instance, Barasingha deer have young fawns in the grasses during the monsoon, and labour camps (for road repair) or increased presence of people can lead to the young animals getting killed.
The wilderness is a place of beauty and might -- with sharp teeth. To make a tourist's stay in the forest comfortable in the rains, one would have to kill insects, destroy undergrowth for visibility, and ride roughshod over streams and drainage. This is doable in theory, but undesirable, because animals don’t understand our intent, only feel the impact of our actions.
Nature Doesn't Need To Show A Profit
Project Tiger is a centrally-sponsored scheme, but the government has been cutting down the budget for the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which overlooks reserves. There was also a recommendation that the authority should become self-financing. Tiger reserves are part of state pride and identity and include some of India’s best forests and wildernesses. Wild animals should be allowed to flourish here for their own, intrinsic worth, and profits should be secondary to this goal. Apart from the practical difficulties of rain-washed wildernesses, there are at least two ethical reasons for this.
Firstly, the idea that nature needs to be commensurate with profit and sales flies against new insights of growth. The Dasgupta Review (2021), an independent and global review on the economics of biodiversity, emphasises that governments exacerbate the nature crisis by paying people more to exploit nature than protect it. It suggests that we need a new metric of wealth and sustainable economic growth, where our engagements with nature are ‘not only sustainable, but also enhance our collective wealth and well-being and that of our descendants.’ This approach, the report adds, accounts for the benefits from investing in natural assets, and shows trade-offs and interactions between investments in different assets. Looking at tiger reserves as valuable only for tourism value belies the complexity of estimation that Dasgupta suggests.
Second, in itself, tourism has not been able to save reserves from drastic changes in land use.
It also has a new diamond mine proposed in its vicinity, even as politicians don’t want to shut down an existing diamond mine in Panna, going against a Supreme Court panel that asked for shutdown in 2016. Roads are being made through reserves which will cut trees – felling the very reason why people go to the wilderness. In short, the short-term gain is trumping ecosystem health, even though floods, glacier breaks, and rockfalls have been raging in various parts of India.
It is important that we highlight again the reason why we protect areas, safeguarding them from stress. Enjoying the pride, joy, and revenue that comes from tourism is one of them. But there is also the unquantifiable ecosystem service of intricate natural systems that work in ways we haven’t fully understood. It can’t be disregarded or undervalued. Every Indian should get to see a wild tiger, but a tiger shouldn’t have to earn his keep.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.