Whose park is it anyway?

[Reproducing a small article I wrote for Protected Area Update Sept 2011 issue. Many thanks to Pankaj Sekhsaria for giving me the opportunity]

As I registered for the Conservation Leadership Program organized by Tiger Watch, I was constantly thinking about what I would be taking back from the course considering that day job is that of a software engineer. Also how could the field of wildlife conservation benefit from what I learn?

As I met the other twenty odd participants, I realized that they were from very different fields (like me). In fact very few of them were actively working in the field of conservation. Over the course of next five days a diverse range of topics were discussed – the conservation value of zoos, viability of relocation of lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh or the possibility of introduction of the cheetah, whether approach towards conservation should be to make the inhabitants of the forests a stakeholder or to exile (read rehabilitate) them to some other place, is it right to look at tourism as an anathema to conservation or should we treat them as enablers – and many more.

One issue that courts controversy and extreme debate is that of tourism and conservation. Having been on a few jungle safaris and nature treks and having read some articles attacking tourism, I was in a state of confusion. The course helped me understand these issues better.

To start we should be clear any relationship between tourism and conservation is, if at all, very remote. Nothing supports this better than the disappearance of the Tigers from Sariska while tourism was in full flow. The case is cemented when you see scores of jeeps surrounding a tiger and tourists in their brightest clothes chatting away, oblivious of the forest. In the Andamans tourism has taken an altogether different meaning. Despite rules to the contrary, some tourists make contacts with the tribal population “exposing” them to a world they are not used to. Having said that, there is no reason why should not allow well meaning nature lovers the joy of seeing a forest.

What we require is honesty of intent from all stakeholders – tour operators, tourist, forest department and conservationists. None of us can claim to truly value our natural bounty if we forget it the moment we come out of the park gates. As tourists it is our duty to ensure that we not just follow the general guidelines but also exhibit a curiosity towards the environment. We should respect the rights of all that constitutes wildlife and environment and spread awareness. Environment should be conserved not for the sake of tourism. It should be conserved because it ulfils an important role in preserving the ecology.

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