India must use tourism as part of the conservation toolbox- Interview with Julian Matthews

Published: December 2nd, 2013,6:44

 “India must use tourism as part of the conservation toolbox”- Interview with Julian Matthews

Even as the next tiger census began in the country, the Travel Operators for Tiger, or TOFTigers as they are called, held a workshop in New Delhi to introduce its members to sustainable tourism practices around wilderness areas. That people involved in running tourism business in tiger reserves and other national parks need to follow a responsible business framework while offering tourists the best jungle experience doesn’t merit reiteration. JULIAN MATTHEWS, founder and chairman of TOFTigers, believes a tour operator, a ground agent and a wildlife lodge together can make a magical difference to nature conservation. During a conversation with Anindita Chattopadhyay, he spoke about benefits and challenges of tiger tourism and TOFT initiatives.

India’s wilderness areas in tiger corridors have reduced while the tiger population has shown an increase in numbers. How can it impact the tiger population?

JM: Correct. The issue is not saving tigers now, but saving the habitat for tigers. Most key breeding areas are now at capacity for their landscape and their prey base. So, conflict occurs when tigers are trying to find a new territory in degraded forest landscapes of which there is 200 to 300 thousand square kilometers left in India. If we save and protect this forest area, then according to well known expert Dr Ullas Karanth, we can have 10,000 tigers. India should use tourism effectively as many other countries have done and let it be part of the conservation toolbox – not an impediment.

But how can wildlife tourism help tigers when building resorts blocking passageways, crowding around and noise pollution are nothing but intrusion?

JM: Tourism is all about management. Tigers and humans have lived together for millions of years and the reality today is that tigers are surviving best in parks and in areas where tourism has very high densities. A recent Wildlife of India Institute research, which is backed by the India Government, shows that jeep safaris in Pench have no impact on tigers and their breeding habits.

However, tourism standards and the awareness and behavior of nature tourists need to improve. TOFT is helping to achieve that and at the same time it believes that MOEF should recognize responsible nature tourism as a potential and imperative conservation tool. We must ensure a partnership approach to conservation rather than the unconstructive and ineffective ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach that exists today between Park Directors and tourism providers. Together we can succeed but nothing constructive can be achieved if we stay apart.

 What according to you would be a responsible business framework and how can the local communities be involved?

JM: Public-private partnerships, community conservation options and farms-to-forests are just some of the options that must be tried if we want to restore the 200 to 300 thousand square kilometers of forest India still has left and ensure that prey and predators be restored. We are worried about the forests that are fast being denuded and uncared for. We would like to see more visionary approaches towards stakeholder participation and inclusion to maintain these forests outside of protected areas.

Our PUG audit certification system in India sets out a minimum sustainable framework for best practice in accommodation provision. It’s about to be upgraded to International standards of sustainability and incorporate all players in the travel trade. This sets clear benchmarks for operations in wilderness areas and their partnership with communities.

 How is TOFTigers making a difference?

JM: Lots of ways. I just mentioned about the PUG eco-rating audits for accommodation providers around parks so that travellers can choose the best lodge to enjoy and make sure it is not compromising their enjoyment and local environment. We have 47 lodges that we recommend in 13 parks. In Corbett, Meenakshi Pandey, Director of TOFT India, is running Waste Warriors campaign to create awareness about keeping parks clean. Besides, we run training programmes and workshops for the tourism trade, and for park guides and naturalists. We run the Good Wildlife Tourism Awards and produce the Good Wildlife Tourism Guides bi-annually. We raise the level of awareness and campaign for better tourism, call for tourism partnerships and collective action for conservation.

What are the challenges you face?

JM: Interaction with forest officials is a big challenge for our members because forest officials without any prior experience are thrown into the situation of managing tourists. They are just policing with do’s and don’ts, without understanding the problems and often impose ground rules without consulting stakeholders. But giving tourists the best jungle experience within limitations of regulations always remain the most important challenge for any in the nature tourism trade.  

The National Tiger Conservation Authority has asked for gradual phase out of tourism from core areas. Your thought.

JM: National Parks are nature heritage sites for everyone and not simply private domains of the forest department. The mission statement for all parks world over, including India, is twofold – a) to save the biodiversity and its critical services to mankind, and b) to allow people to enjoy, learn and appreciate nature and seek solace from nature. Thus, I am against the idea that India’s best nature areas should remain excluded. It is not only undemocratic and unconstitutional, but dangerous in its implications for accountability and goes against the very remit of a civic society.  It needs managing, not excluding.  Yes, let us expand tourism to buffer zones and corridors in new ways and ensure better partnerships among all stakeholders – that’s imperative. But it should not be at the expense of discontinuing visits into the best wilderness habitats of India.

(The writer was Senior Editor, Edit-Opinion desk, The Pioneer, former Bureau Chief, Indian Express Business Publication Div and is recipient of the LK Bakshi award) 

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Published: December 2nd, 2013,6:44

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