Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan is one of the few places in India where you are likely to spot a tiger in the wild. So, any move by the state’s forest department to capitalise on tiger tourism should come as no surprise. Yet, forest officials in the state were caught unawares by news reports that the forest department had sent a proposal to the state government to keep the park open for tourists all day, and also permit night safaris.
At present, the park is open for six hours a day – three hours in the morning just after dawn, and three hours in the evening before dusk – from October to June.
Chief Wildlife Warden G Vishvanath Reddy said that he could not comment on the specifics of the proposal that was sent to the state government four or five months ago, which he was yet to see. Reddy said that even if the park hours were extended, it would be done in full compliance of the National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines for tiger reserves.
But wildlife activist Ajay Dubey is already preparing to fight the proposal. “This proposal is not applicable due to guidelines,” said Dubey. “They cannot operate a whole day safari, or night safari.”
Four years ago, the Supreme Court lifted a temporary ban on tourism in the core areas of India’s most protected parks by permitting such activity in 20% of these areas. The ban was lifted only after the National Tiger Conservation Authority, following a directive by the apex court, formulated and issued guidelines for the 41 tiger reserves in the country that states were mandated to follow. The guidelines issued by the the apex tiger conservation body emphasise that the main purpose of tiger reserves is to ensure conservation.
Tourism is an important part of Ranthambore’s conservation programme, said warden Reddy. The national park covers a massive 1,400 sq km of which about 400 sq km is open for tourism. The park is divided into 10 zones with tourist vehicles distributed across zone to prevent overcrowding in any one area.
The park raises some Rs 4 crore every year through tourism, which goes into its upkeep, said Reddy. The constant movement of vehicles along the park roads also serves to patrol the area.
But Reddy is not convinced of the wisdom of keeping the park open the whole day. “Animals are active only in the mornings and evenings,” said Reddy. “During the day, while it is hot, they tend to rest in the shade and are not that active. I don’t think serious wildlife viewers will go to the park at midday. When they are spending so much money they will want to take some good pictures and see the animals being active, not just sleeping.”
Others are convinced that night safaris are harmful and believe that the state government is unlikely to clear the proposal. “If tourists go into the forest with lights and all that, it will definitely harm and disturb the animals,” said Dharmendra Khandal, a conservation biologist with the non-governmental organisation, Tiger Watch. “But if they are going on the fringes, it can also be useful.” He said that the park management could consider allowing visitors to go on night rides with forest guards on village roads outside the reserve, which will not exactly be a safari but still have some tourism value.
Others argue that the development of tourism has been good for tigers and tourists alike. Initially, tourists were only allowed into zones 1-5 but zones 6-10 were eventually opened up too.
"Till about 10 years ago, zones 1-5 were the only places you could go on safari," said Aditya Singh, who wears many hats – wildlife photographer, tiger conservationist, representative of Travel Operators for Tigers and owner of the Ranthambore Bagh resort. Singh added that when zone 6 was first opened about eight years ago, it was almost impossible to find tigers there. “All you could see there were a few chinkaras and nilgai,” said Singh. “Now in zones 6,7 and 8 there are 10 to 12 tigers.”
Singh said that this has happened because as each zone was developed for tiger tourism, it was closed to local villagers who would enter the reserve to cut wood and gather forest produce. When villagers stopped coming into the forest, the tigers expanded their territories into the new zones, he said.
Any extension in the park's opening hours will lead to an increase in tourists. That is likely to cause problems as Reddy is already grappling with the challenges of managing the park’s many tourists – resorts in Ranthambore have 2,000 beds while the park’s carrying capacity is only 1,200 visitors at a time.
Reddy also faces problems created by tour vehicles who do not stay in their zones when they hear of a tiger sighting – tour operators rush to any spot where a tiger is spotted, and tend to crowd the animal. “Tour operators want to show their customers the best thing,” said Reddy. “So they go off the road and come at the tiger from the other end. All this puts a lot of pressure [on the tiger] and almost destroys the habitat in the area.”
The warden is keen on implementing a system in which all vehicles entering the park will be equipped with Global Positioning Systems or GPS so that park authorities can monitor vehicles to ensure that they stay in the zones assigned to them.
Neither the proposal to allow all-day safaris or to have GPS-enabled vehicles is new, said Singh, who added that India needed to overhaul the way it ran its tiger reserves. “It is very outdated, the way the parks are run,” he said. “They are doing the same thing now that they were doing in the 1970s. They especially need to use technology to monitor parks.”