This is a story dating back to almost a decade ago. In September 2010, Ajay Dubey became a name dreaded by the tiger tourism industry. His PIL in the Supreme Court questioned the basis of tourism in tiger forests. For the first time there was a re-think on the terminology of Eco-tourism that was used very loosely by one and all. He had for the first time sent the high and mighty tourism operators running for cover. Many called him names but some actually started to introspect their business models.
Soon it was understood that the tourism model was plain Tiger Tourism or at best Wildlife Tourism. It fell short on two major fronts that were expected of Eco-tourism. Very little benefits were transferred to the communities form the forest neighbouring villages. Many were simply employed because it was cheaper having them, than getting staff from cities. There was very little capacity building for them and mostly people who were employed as waiters, gardeners, watchmen and house-keeping staff ‘retired’ twenty five to thirty years later – just that!
The other aspect that the tourism model failed miserably – was in the inability in forming ‘aware’ eco-conscious citizen. The lack of environment education and good interpretation meant that we had ‘happy or sad’ tiger watchers – based on the quantity or lack of tiger darshans. To date, the phrase kuch nahi dekha is often heard at tourist gates.
With this background, I look at the model that is being implemented in many forests of Maharashtra, which is such a welcome change. Around the same time in 2010, the Maharashtra Forest Department broke away from its colonial past and started to partner with the local communities. Praveen Pardeshi, the then Principal Secretary brought in the fresh new outlook to conserving our wilderness areas with the support of local people.
Almost a decade after the revolutionary concept got approval of the Department, today Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is the trend setter for other wilderness areas of the country.
The Buffer area tourism of TATR that Pardeshi initiated, became a revolution of sorts. We realised that by providing visitors an access to natural areas could assist in raising public awareness of their critical importance, specially when the experiences are interpreted by well informed local nature guides. As part of the nature-based experience, the nature guides in the new Eco-tourism saw a reason to protect and conserve bio-diversity and cultural heritage of TATR Buffer.
TATR saw value in regular training its guides – local adivasi youth who naturally found it difficult to communicate with outsiders. Today backed by a sense of ownership and pride they tell their tourists “You may get tiger sightings elsewhere too – but come here to experience an amazing forest”. Fortunately glamorous animals like the tigers, leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears, gaurs and sambar deer don’t differentiate the buffer from core forest.
In order to extend the benefit to wider spectrum of people, the TATR Management went ahead and did something that was the biggest game changer. While most of the old and renowned forests have around three-four entry gates, Tadoba has 19 of them! Each of these gates is extending the benefits of tourism to at least a couple of villages around the gate. People are finding direct benefit of being Nature Guides, Safari Drivers and service providers. There are many others who are also benefiting from the tourism in their areas. The Forest Department in turn is benefiting in having more friendlier ‘eyes and ears’ that are helping in improving protection.
Most other prominent wildlife destinations also have an inherent problem. Those tourists who are unable to get a Safari ticket – have nothing else to do. Not in Tadoba! Tourists can choose from eight additional and equally exciting activities – boating, cycling, nature trail, adventure, birding, international standard butterfly interpretation centre, sitting on machan, night patrolling etc.
TATR has found that the secret of successful tourism management lies in dispersing the tourists to different gates and activities. Tadoba is also working at providing a uniquely different interpretation to the tourists – even while on safari. The interactive workbook styled booklets allow the tourists to keep a note of trees, birds, butterflies, signs in the forests along with the direct sightings of mammals. Such tourists don’t complain of kuch nahi dekha. There are a few tourists however who come only and only for Tiger sightings and photography.
What has probably made TATR different from others is the fact that the Park Management is ‘listening’ to the tourists. Feedback forms and online suggestions have brought about many changes already – extremely simplified entry at the gates, cleaner toilets, more pleasant interaction by the staff are just some of the visible changes. The biggest change is in the fact that Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve now has many good neighbours.
The community in these villages is benefiting from the forest and is now a stakeholder in conservation. And the best part is that the Forest Department or the state Government doesn’t have to pay their salaries. Tourism pays!