Belinda Wright and Valmik Thapar, who are opposed to the Supreme Court’s interim ban on tourism in core tiger areas, “own” resorts in Kanha and Ranthambore.
ABHINANDAN MISHRA New Delhi | 2nd Sep
A Royal Bengal Tiger at an enclosure of Alipore Zoological Garden in Kolkata. PTI
almik Thapar and Belinda Wright, two renowned tiger conservationists, who are opposing the interim ban by the Supreme Court on tourism in the core areas of 41 tiger reserves, are associated with resorts that flank national parks. Interestingly, they had earlier written a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking for his intervention to save the tigers and stating that "people and tiger do no co-exist". Wright owns a resort near Kanha National Park, while Thapar's nephew runs another resort next to Ranthambore National Park.
According to an official list of 53 resorts surrounding the Kanha National Park, Belinda Wright owns the Kipling Camp, which is at a distance of less than 4 km from the park boundaries. Kipling has 14 rooms, and as per Wright, was established in 1982. At least 9 more resorts are slated to come up in and around Kanha.
Similarly, Thapar's nephew Jaisal Singh owns Sherbagh Resort in Ranthambore. The fact that Sherbagh is owned by Valmik Thapar's family was confirmed by many travel sites including Indian Wildlife. Thapar's association with the resort has been displayed as its USP.
The "campaign letter" written to the Prime Minister on 29 May 2007 asked for tiger reserves to be made inviolate, and bore the names of other activists such as, Raghu Chundawat, Bittu Sahgal, P.K. Sen and Toby Sinclair. "Secure inviolate areas. The WII/NTCA data shows clearly that people and tigers do not co-exist. We must focus our attention on protecting the few remaining inviolate tiger-bearing tracts — largely Tiger Reserves — and the connectivity between them, before all is lost," it reads.
The Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFT), one of the most well known tiger-tour operators, which has several eco-resort owners and tour operators as partners, has called for funds from tour operators across the world to fight the ban and the government's guidelines. TOFT is also opposing the imposition of a cess on its revenues to be used for conserving wildlife and providing livelihood to locals as proposed in the government guidelines. Most of the funds received by TOFT till now have come from the UK and has big names such as Cox and Kings, a travel agency. The association, along with prominent wildlife NGOs, such as Wildlife Protection Society of India, headed by Wright, has taken a stand against the 24 July ban. Wright has described the tourism ban as a "total disaster".
Activist Ajay Dubey, the man behind the PIL which led to the ban, feels that vested interests are spreading misinformation: "This is not the final order but an interim stay. And nowhere have I prayed for a complete ban, I just want the court to see to it that the laws are implemented. That's why I have demanded that there should be some guidelines to control tourism so that it does not affect the tiger."
The pressure being put by the tourism lobby can be gauged from the fact that H.S. Pabla, who is presently the advisor to Madhya Pradesh eco-tourism board, wrote an email to resort owners and to TOFT, when he was still the Chief Wildlife Warden, advising them to take "whatever steps" required to protect their interests after Dubey first filed the PIL in Jabalpur High Court in 2010. "This is to let you know that a PIL has been filed in the HC Jabalpur seeking ban in core areas of tiger reserves ... although the government of MP will oppose the ban, still lodge owners, travel operators may also implead themselves as affected parties to make sure that the PIL does not succeed," the email reads.
Resort owners, including Wright, say that there are a huge number of people (according to Wright over a million) who depend, either directly or indirectly, on wildlife tourism. According to her, without an income from tourism, most local people would have little option but to turn to the forest for resources, including poaching for food and illegal wildlife trade.
However, Dubey says that this is not true. "What kind of livelihood has been provided to the locals all these years? Washing utensils, doing laundry? Can the resort owners give even 10 names of persons who have moved upwards in the economic chain and progressed apart from the owners themselves?"
According to Wright, poachers do not feel safe operating in areas where there is unpredictable vehicle movement. "There are numerous examples where guides and tourists have reported suspicious intruders, and twice to my knowledge tigers caught in a steel jaw trap," Wright told this newspaper through email.
Siddharth Gupta, Dubey's counsel, is not convinced. "The visitors go inside the park for roughly 6-8 hours and that too in daytime. Poachers prefer darkness and they don't wait for the tourists to come."
The core question, according to Dubey, is wildlife tourism, which is growing in an unregulated manner.