Green Chat on CNN-IBN with Abhishek Behl - Will Tiger Tourism Help Conservation?

I am reposting an old chat that I did on my blog. This was taken by CNN-IBN News Channel when I was the Director of TOFT India (2008)

Green Chat with Abhishek Behl

Will tiger tourism help conservation?

PROJECT TIGER TOURISM: Some experts are touting wildlife tourism as a viable method for wildlife conservation.

As tiger populations crash across the country, a vital question is can tourism pump in the much-needed money into wild habitats and local people in a responsible manner to help in the conservation of the tiger?

That’s the question we are asking in this month’s Green Chat of the Month with Abhishek Behl of Travel Operators for Tigers.

TOFT is a campaign that works closely with the tourism industry round the country. It aims to aid better communication and knowledge within the wilderness and to ensure that wilderness tourism plays a beneficial role in the long-term future of wildlife and India’s wilderness.

Abhishek Behl comes armed with an MSc degree in Conservation & Tourism from the Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology, Kent University, UK. He started his conservation career with Kids for Tigers Coordinator – Delhi (India’s largest schools awareness program on tiger conservation) and has worked with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust on protected area and habitat management research in UK.


Neha: Hi Abhishek, I was a member of WWF and was a part of tiger census in north Maharashtra, but this was some 10 years back. That time itself I found a very reluctant behavior of forest officials towards the procedure. They were least serious about it. I wanted to raise this concern to you because I feel whatever effort we make, that gets blocked by the big hurdle of government officials. Plus, your initiative is not possible without government’s intervention (ie tourism money to reach tigers). So how do you foresee overcoming this big barrier? Government employees eat up everything and don’t let anything reach the level zero recipients.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Neha. Yes, it’s a similar situation in many parts of the country. The Government knows about TOFT and knows we are in the same platform where we are trying to help and assist wildlife managers etc. I would look at the positive side to all this, the realisation that there is a problem and we need to start acting is important. TOFT does not charge any fee to its members. It’s all for free, so what we do is quietly work and that’s what gets us going. No money involved no issues are raised.

Saiprasad: Hi Abhishek. I think international pressure helps. Look at the whale-hunting stigma that Japan is facing today. To a great extent, diplomatic pressure for conservation at a higher level can force governments to act. UN needs to play a much more aggressive role in this today. Do you agree with my observation? I would like to hear more on this from you.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Sai, Yes. Whale pressure is an ideal example and with diplomatic pressure many governments act. UN knows about us well and I agree they need to be more aggressive in playing their role. I think your observation is amazing and I must say – people should start playing the pressure game. That’s what TOFT is about – putting business pressure up the tourism chain and down the tourism chain to act responsibly.

Abhijith: Hi Abhishek, I have a very simple question – how much awareness is being created among the rural people about the conservation of tigers and what steps are being taken to prevent poaching?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Abhijith. Good point here and yes, that’s a vital issue which I am trying to work on in these six months. I am not focusing on the poaching aspect as that would be a tie-up with an organisation focusing on anti-poaching measures etc., but yes, in awareness many approach have to laid out where people can participate. I have to also keep in mind the high human density regions around PAs, which can be one of my major constraint. Not much awareness is being created which is not good.

Swastik Chatterjee: What is the best way of developing interest for children so that they actively take part in protecting our wildlife? Like in some schools they are affiliated to WWF and I had personally been drawn to conserve because of such an initiative. How do we go about, I mean, sequence of visiting various reserves so that they become not only aware but also start loving it?

Abhishek Behl: http://www.kidsfortigers.org. I am sure your children’s school would be a part of it. Tell your children to get in touch with the co-ordinator of the school and KFT office and participate kids to their programs. WWF also must be doing programs and make your children take the initiative personally ahead. That’s where the realisation starts.

Ram C: Hi Abhishek, are all animal conservationists vegetarians? McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs are growing in numbers all across the world. Even the new Indian generation is fonder of eating meat. Maybe this is the reason why many among us don’t care much about animals and their importance to the eco-system. Do you think there is not much done to promote vegetarianism?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Ram. A bit of a generalisation in your question. I do eat meat and also care a lot about species and its existence for future survival. I guess the divide line is what you call meat? I believe in the human food chain. I don’t eat wild animals as I care about them. I feel vegetarianism is a personal preference and many colleagues in my conservation line are vegetarians and respect my personal likes. The eco-system has many food chains. The question now to think is how would you participate well in your natural selections.

Nitin Jain: If the population of tigers is so less, and decreasing, why they aren’t being mated more and their population increased?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Nitin, to answer that – I guess that’s why they are called ‘WILD’. If they were being mated more to increase population then it’s better going to a zoo. I personally feel you need to travel more in wild habitats.

Ganesh: Sir, how is the new Tribal/Forest Land Act going to help in protecting the tiger?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Ganesh. Cannot say as we will just have to see what really happens. I call it not the Tribal Forest Act but the Forest Dwellers Act, to be more precise. A few days back I heard National parks/sanctuaries are kept out of the act. Good news.

Manoj Tiwari: There is a flip side to Tiger tourism in India. A lot of people will get fascinated by tigers and wild animals and they come to know of various usages their skin, bones, teeth etc. In the end they might end up looking for those thing i.e. promoting wildlife killings. This is exactly how the tribals are exploited. Where is the solution?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Manoj. I don’t want to get into much of what I learnt in university but yes, it was sad that there were very few case studies learnt about tourism and conservation from Indian tiger reserves. That’s what made me feel to start TOFT in India. That’s where Dr Karanth sponsored me to work at Ranthambhore. I guess, by blaming one another we will not achieve anything. If we each act individually we all can achieve a lot. We need to understand the root cause of what makes people turn poachers etc, work with them and then enhance their participation in cooperative structure etc. There are loads of things people can do.

Hari: First, we have to stop projecting tigers as a model. It will worsen the condition and affect the wildlife.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Hari, I agree here. People need to get out of being tiger-centric in wild habitats. I know we are called TOFT ‘Travel operators for Tigers’ because tigers are the top species in the Indian jungles and all the rest of the animals fall in its food chain. We call our campaign ‘Action on responsible use of wild habitats’. So, use it wisely. Use it well.

Sitesh Chandra Mohanty: Hi Abhishek, Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa has a conflicting figure about the number of tigers, the pug-mark method and the camera-trap method has different numbers. Can you elaborate on it?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Sitesh. Your question would be well answered by some one looking into population dynamics, telemetry and photo shots in wild habitats.

Amit Ogale: I had been to Kanha recently. It was beautiful. But recently tiger traps were said to have been found even in the core area. How reliable is the forest security in India? Do you really think tigers will survive in India? What do you think is a realistic tiger population count in India?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Amit. Kanha is beautiful. Yes, the reliability of the forest security is a lot in question here, and I, per se, cannot comment anything right now as I have not looked into this matter in depth. I feel Tigers are very clever species and will survive. I am confident it will. We need to make more corridors in areas and that will enhance the viable population in a given area. The government figures say the total count is around 1500. The word “around” makes me think.

Neogy: The only question coming to my mind now is what do we do now? Is there any solution?

Abhishek Behl: Participate in wildlife issues and make tourism as a vital tool for conservation.

Vikram: Hi Abhishek. Just like any other public service, how much of the educated people are willing to join the wildlife department in India? Are we not lacking dedicated/passionate and educated people to conserve our wildlife? What is the scenario in foreign countries? Comment.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Vikram. It’s hard to say as I am not a public servant myself. Talking on a personal level, what I feel is India should rethink their strategy on enhancing IFS intakes as most of the IFS intakes have an administrative approach, because most of them focus on IAS and then take Forests as a further option. Forest service is a very enhanced field of knowledge and I must say we do not lack the educated people to fill these posts. They need to be more passionate and dedicated on forest and wildlife issues. I have always felt wildlife tourism should have a separate ministry and then decision-making for our agenda would be much thoughtful and easier to work on.

Tarun Nainani: Hi, I am a software engineer. How can people like me participate in what you guys are campaigning? How it is possible to actively do something for saving tigers?

Abhishek Behl: Travel more to parks and indirectly participate. Visit http://www.toftigers.org

Sameera Khan: Hi Abhishek. I live near the upper lake in Bhopal, where a lot of migratory birds make their abode. A lot of villagers kill these birds at night which is a matter of deep distress and concern for us. What should I do when I hear gunshots at 2 am? I don’t think the police will be much of help. Do help.

Abhishek Behl: Take action. The forest department would be having an office there. Report the matter and if you do meet people doing this act, please try and educate them on its importance in keeping this species alive.

Satyam: What can I do, as a tourist, not to spoil a national reserve or forest?

Abhishek Behl: Have a good wildlife experience where you involve all species in your viewing. Enjoy the wild and please make sure to interact with the local guides/staff in hotels and teach him/her as well as learn back from them. That’s a massive contribution.

Clarence Lobo: Dear Abhishek, congratulations on your achievements. I have just brushed through this chat but would like to add my two bits to it. Firstly, thank you for doing what you are doing and wish you all the success and support in the future. Killing tigers and any wildlife should be put to the end, period. Check on encroachment by human population should be check. If tiger tourism will help in achieving this then it is good. Will the funds generated by this go directly in the aid of tigers and the forest? I feel you should have a very good marketing strategy and hire a PR firm or have one in-house to achieve your goals. You need to have a website showing your goals and achievements. Everything needs to be crystal clear, how can lay people like us offer help, there are many that do but don’t know exactly how. I am the grandson of an ex-DFO of south India and want to do my bit to help in whatever way I can.

Abhishek Behl: Thanks for your encouragement, Clarence. We have a website http://www.toftigers.org . Marketing strategy and PR firms are for corporates, not for TOFT. We need to be in the field and that’s where our programs matter. Awareness, yes, is a massive factor and by you participating in this chat and raising questions and suggestions has contributed to many reading.

Pankaj: Hi Abhishek, is it possible to integrate our major tigers reserves with each other through forest corridors? I feel this would help in long-term survival of tigers and other species. What is your take on this?

Abhishek Behl: Absolutely, Pankaj. That’s the only way of survival for many animals. Keeping in mind a Kanha tiger was spotted in Pench some months back. That’s what is great about having corridors.

Sho: Hi Abhishek, I am an animal lover. I am visiting India in mid-Feb. Can you recommend a good tiger reserve that I can visit? Ages ago I have been Kanha (MP) and Nagzira (Maharashtra). Any recommendations?

Abhishek Behl: Please visit http://www.toftigers.org

Rituparna Mohanty: Tourism can’t save the Indian tiger alone. Is there some other way that we can take up to save the about to extinct national treasure?

Abhishek Behl: We still have tourism and that’s at least one thing we have. Afforestation is another process which we would be getting into in the future.

Bharat Tandon: The tiger is the ultimate reflection of our national identity, be it eco-tourism or any other innovative methods, the time has come to go out of the way to save this gem of an animal from extinction.

Abhishek Behl: Rightly said, Bharat. It’s high time now that people start realising that we are critically near a disaster but there is hope.

Bharat Tandon: Panha tiger reserve became our national shame. It’s appalling that the symbol of our national pride has become a subjective victim of vested interests ranging from local poachers to Chinese traders.

Abhishek Behl: Did you mean Kanha or Panna here?

Gautham Devara: Abhishek, I have a couple of questions for you. 1) Do you think tourism is possible when most of the sanctuaries are overrun by militants (especially Maoists) and even the police are scared to venture in? 2) The single greatest danger to our wildlife is loss of habitat. India is going through an economic boom, which translates to more forests being cut down and encroachment inside its boundaries. Don’t you feel we have a better chance to save the wildlife if the common man is integrated into the plan (like making forestry a part of our school syllabus and having more field trips to the forests for school kids), rather than have a few rich people visiting these places? Tourism is great, but we cannot save wildlife if the average Indian thinks that it is a luxury he can do without.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Gautham. Many issues raised here and will try and respond to as many as possible: Tourism in extremist base areas can be a problem. It’s more in line, so many countries’ High Commissions advise their citizens that it is not safe to travel to these place. That does cause tourism not to run. Habitat loss is a massive problem and surprisingly you are one of the few people in the chat that has brought this issue up. It is the greatest danger to our wildlife. For example, Animal corridors in many pockets have turned into commercial economical ventures and that’s not good for species survival. That’s where most of the human animal problems exist. Yes, we have a better change in saving wildlife if our educational system puts more work on school syllabus in having interactive sessions with kids on field trips from a very young age. It’s always better to catch kids young and they realise the worth of wild habitats. Yes, I agree that wildlife should be treated as a luxury where every human being should feel he/she can do without.

Viswanath: Hi Abhishek. Are we effectively utilising the services of ‘Forest Sons’ (People who live in remote villages near to dense forests) in conserving endangered species? If we appoint those people as conservers giving some money as remuneration, it might work well (I think so). Should our preliminary target be to educate these villagers for protecting wild life?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Viswanath. Yes, absolutely. By giving any benefits to people living around forest areas might well work keeping in mind you will have to analyse load of socio-cultural impacts in place. Education is an important factors to start with and along with this, there has to be a certain benefit to make them interested and they will start protecting wildlife and its habitat.

Bharat Tandon: Apart from eco-tourism, can relocation of tigers be implemented across the nation at different national parks and forests given the fact that the tiger is known to survive contrasting terrains and climates with ease?

Abhishek Behl: I guess this question can be answered better by researchers focusing on relocation and population dynamics.

Saiprasad: Hi Abhishek. Poaching versus conservation is as much a economic issue as a environmental issue. How do we make locals understand the value of long term benefits of tourism viz-á-viz big bucks by aligning with the poachers? I think that is the biggest challenge the world over for all endangered species.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Saiprasad, A very good point raised here and yes, Poaching and conservation with its economical values can cause massive problem if not tackled well. Making locals understand the long-term value or benefits of tourism can have a long-term approach. I guess we need to first identify the anthropological ethnicity of the poaching community and work with their traditional values and culture to give the sense of realisation in tourism and how it can benefit people. It’s a massive challenge and has to be done.

Dipankar Banerjee: Hi Abhishek. My question is to do with the integration of the entire system to make this work. One needs to create awareness of the issue, respect the law, promote the cause and encourage participation. Have you thought on these lines? If so, please share your thoughts and it will be interesting to know what are the hurdles you have faced.

Abhishek Behl: Hi Dipankar. I agree with you here on issues which need to be addressed. The TOFT campaign itself was formed not by an NGO but individuals from the tourism industry who felt a need to change in the way wildlife tourism was being managed in India. To simplify, it’s the travel industry (International) telling the travel industry (in India) and vice-versa – that to become responsible before everything goes. India’s PA management system in place is Top to Down – Government orders and people follow. It’s not like a co-management regime where people could have a say in decision- making. Hurdles faced in the field are massive as we all in the TOFT member group have to go through situations which are way beyond words, but the industry does it as its a way to appreciate the law and encourage ones participation.

Vedant: Singapore has made famous its night safari where animals are allowed their natural habitats in a “touristy” environment. Should India follow suit?

Abhishek Behl: India has zoos for that. I guess what we need to think is the model of approach here and the best habitat for wild species are not by human made natural environment but by wild habitats like our national parks itself. India has far greater richness in its endemic species then Singapore.

Supriyo Mishra: How can we join with your great mission?

Abhishek Behl: Hi Supriyo. Your participation to visit national parks and the environment itself would be a great contribution. This participation can be physically as well as talking about it.

Article Source: http://www.ibnlive.com/news/green-chat-will-tiger-tourism-help-conservation/57676-11-p0.html

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