The Supreme Court's recent call for a tourism ban in core areas of tiger reserves has evoked a strong response from local communities of Assam's Kaziranga National Park, who are caught between the pressures of conservation of this World Heritage Site, 'development' through quarrying and mining, and the growing tourism industry that gives them a livelihood
Text and photographs by Shailendra Yashwant
Watching rhinos and elephants grazing amongst swamp deer and wild buffaloes amidst the clamour of hundreds of birds swooping in and out of this almost fantastic tableau is sufficient to understand why Kaziranga National Park is one of India's finest protected areas. Two-thirds of the world's great one-horned rhinoceroses live in the park and it has the highest density of tigers among protected areas in the world. The park also has large breeding populations of elephants, water buffalo and swamp deer. The Kaziranga landscape spread over approximately 378 sq km, consists of tall elephant grass, marshland and dense tropical moist broadleaf forests dotted with lakes formed due to floods, called bheels. The park sprawls across Nagaon and Golaghat districts of Assam, circumscribed by the Brahmaputra river along the northern and eastern boundaries and Mora Diphlu river in the south. This magnificent biodiversity hotspot in the Indomalaya Ecozone is considered the Jewel of Assam.
There were hardly 20 rhinos left in Kaziranga at the turn of the 20th century. In June 1905, the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created with an area of 232 sq km and was eventually opened to visitors in 1937. On February 11, 1974 the park boundaries were extended to include a total area of 430 sq km (166 sq miles) and was declared a national park by the central government, with more resources made available for its protection. In 1985, UNESCO declared Kaziranga a World Heritage Site for its unique natural environment. In 2007, the park was also given the status of Tiger Reserve Forest. Today the park boasts of about 1,165 elephants, 2,048 rhinos and a total of 118 adult, sub-adult and cub tigers roaming its interiors. A total addition of 429 sq km along the present boundary of the park has been made and designated with separate national park status to provide extended habitat for increasing the population of wildlife and as a corridor for the safe movement of animals to the Karbi Anglong Hills during the annual floods of the Brahmaputra.
This year's floods, termed catastrophic by the authorities, claimed 631 animals, including 19 rhinos. But the floods are not a catastrophe for the park, they are an annual phenomenon that recharges the bheels, swamps, ponds, streams and rivers, regenerating the grasslands that are so crucial to the very survival of its residents. Similar high floods in 1988 and 1998 recorded animal mortality of 1,203 and 652 respectively. Unlike Ranthambore, Kanha, Corbett and other tiger reserves that are under severe pressure from tourism and related development, Kaziranga has evaded the popular tiger tourist circuit, despite its prized sightings of the big five, mainly because of its location in the northeast which until recently was difficult to access and generally considered unsafe due to the unstable political climate. But as relative peace returns to the region and with the expansion of highways connecting the park to Guwahati, the main air and rail head, there is a palpable anticipation evident in building activities along National Highway 37 on the southern boundary of the park. The tourist numbers to the park have risen dramatically from 19,525 visitors in 1997 to about 516,000 in 2012.
Until recently poaching was considered the biggest threat to Kaziranga's denizens, especially rhinos, to feed the great Chinese appetite for rhino-horn, which is considered an aphrodisiac. In 1992, 48 rhinos fell to the guns of poachers. Since that ghastly year there has been a constant decline in poaching incidents thanks to the valiant efforts of the forest department but poaching has not been brought totally under control. Today, the real danger to Kaziranga's animal populations is habitat destruction caused by what scientists call 'increasing anthropogenic pressures' or destructive human activity, which is slowly eroding the park's boundaries. Long before the declaration of the reserve, the animals here roamed freely from the banks of the Brahmaputra to the top of the Karbi Anglong hills that rise to altitudes upto 600 metres, providing a natural getaway for animals escaping floods.
Today there are merely four narrow corridors available for the animals. The very first fullscale human invasion came in the form of the tea estates, then came the settlements of the 'tea-tribes', people from the plains across the borders, as labourers in the tea estates. Then came the highway to Dibrugarh, followed by a smattering of industries and finally a few hotels and resorts and more migrants and their cattle. Soon a refinery was built and a massive colony for its workers was constructed. More people from outside followed and then began the first of many civil wars in the region. The Karbis, previously known as Mikhirs, were agitating for a separate state. After a long and ugly period, Karbi Anglong was carved out of Assam as an exclusive district for the Karbis and granted the status of an autonomous district or 'state within a state' with independent governing mechanisms as per the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. This led to a further drawing of boundaries and soon enough the most important part of the park, the hills where animals could escape in floods, was no more under the purview of the Assam forest department. A newly formed Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (NAAC) appointed its own forest department and has its own plans for the forests that are under its newly acquired power. This political move has all but taken away the authority of the Assam forest department to monitor, track and maintain the very hills that offer sanctuary to the denizens of Kaziranga in times of floods such as this year. That is if the animals are able to cross the National Highway, find an intact forest corridor and escape the poacher's bullets.
Driving from Nagaon to Golaghat, I was not surprised to see that the corridors that link the Karbi Anglong hills with Kaziranga National Park have fallen prey to illicit and illegal development activities – quarrying being the most obvious. Domestic cattle can be seen grazing with rhinos and wild buffaloes along the fringes of the park. Across the highway a new wave of deforestation has begun in the hills. I was told that COs or cutting permissions for forest produce are available to all and sundry for a price. If you have big bucks you can buy permissions for quarrying, mining, plantations...anything is possible.
While responding to activist Rohit Chowdhary's petition against illegal stone quarrying around Kaziranga before the National Green Tribunal in June 2012, the MoEF admitted that 64 industrial units including 26 stonecrushers and 14 brick kilns are in operation inside the NDZ, in violation of its own notification of July 1996.
But even as the Assam forest department and its counterparts in Karbi Anglong struggle to find common ground to better manage the corridors and arrest deforestation in Karbi Anglong, there is a fledgling tourism economy that has come to employ and occupy a sizeable part of the local population. This community sees itself playing an important role in conservation and injecting serious tourist dollars in the local economy. The Supreme Court's recent order calling for a tourism ban in core areas of tiger reserves evoked a strong response from the Kaziranga Suraksha Samiti, a forum of the All Assam Students' Union, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, Kaziranga Jeep Safari Santha and Kaziranga Bazzar Samiti, which has decided to appeal to the Supreme Court to spare Kaziranga from the ban.
Tourism Operators of Assam Joint Secretary Bhaskar J Barua was quick to welcome the Supreme Court's decision, however, saying, "It will go a long way in helping tiger conservation in the country and freeing the core areas of tiger reserves from any kind of external disturbances." Firoz Ahmed of Aaranyak and a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority said in a recent interview, "There is an urgent need to stop all residential tourism within core areas as also to keep the animal corridors intact, but banning safaris in core areas would hit both tourism and conservation. In Kaziranga, there is a lot of community support for conservation. These communities' livelihoods are largely linked to day-to-day tourism and a sudden blanket ban on all tourist activities in core areas will rob them of their livelihoods which in turn will make them indifferent and even antagonistic to conservation."
Political activist and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi has demanded that Project Tiger must be scrapped altogether and the park denotified in the larger interests of the people of Kaziranga who are mostly dependent on tourism for their livelihood. Addressing a gathering of about 2,000 members of the Krishak Mukhti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) on August 20, 2012 he demanded "immediate denotification of tiger reserve at Kaziranga and providing the land patta documents to the people residing at fringe areas of Kaziranga since a long time back." An extreme measure, but with increasing population, the anthropogenic pressures – the inevitable human invasion -- is a clear and present danger to the peace of Kaziranga National Park.
Following the Supreme Court ban on tourism in core areas, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is currently drafting and revising ecotourism guidelines for protected areas for submission to the Supreme Court. Some of the proposed guidelines include the following recommendations:
- Tourism in protected areas should be community-based. It should not be allowed in areas from which forestdwellers have been relocated. Forestdwellers should be given priority in income-generation through tourism.
- Tourism should be phased out from core areas. As an interim measure, community tourism can be allowed in maximum 20% of the core area, which spreads over 500 sq km.
- Hotels and resorts within 5 km of national parks and sanctuaries should be charged at least 10% of their turnover as conservation cess. The fund will be spent on forest resource conservation, managing human-animal conflict and generating income for communities. Homestays will be exempted from the cess.
- Infrastructure should not affect the wildlife corridor and should include low-impact architecture, waste recycling and rainwater harvesting. At least 50% of the energy should come from renewables.
- The number of tourists and vehicles should be limited on the basis of available area, disturbance caused to wildlife and management capacity of the staff
- A district-level committee, involving officials and people, should be formed to monitor the practices of tour operators. States must amend rules and regulations to conform to the guidelines within a year.
It is a fact that Kaziranga National Park has been granted maximum security under various Indian laws for wildlife conservation, but unless this protection extends to the forest corridors and hills of Karbi Anglong, Kaziranga will soon be reduced to a zoo without bars. More importantly, it is clear that the role of local communities as equal stakeholders with the forest department in the efforts to protect the unique biodiversity and endangered species of Kaziranga is critical. Unlike Kanha, Corbett and Ranthambore, it is not too late for Kaziranga to take the lead and incorporate the proposed and soon to be mandatory ecotourism guidelines to ensure that the conservation and development needs of the region are complementary. There is no choice really; Kaziranga has a reputation to protect.
Infochange News & Features, September 2012