Nagpur (Maharashtra), Jan 19 : Hundreds of tourist guides and drivers working for various tiger reserves in Maharashtra and central India protested on Friday against UK-based NGO Survival International's appeal to foreigners to boycott Indian tiger reserves.
The protests at the Pench Tiger Reserve (PTR) and Nawegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve (NNTR) come in the wake of a formal protest lodged against SI and its Director Stephen Corry by various organisations including the Satpuda Foundation, working for tiger and forests conservation.
Their ire stems from an open email alleging that the Indian government was "illegally evicting" tribals from their forests violating their rights, and asked tourists to stop visiting the 50 tiger reserves spread across India.
According to National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) figures, the 50 reserves in India, spread across 18 states, are home to an estimated 2,226 tigers in the wild, the highest in the world, and attract over one crore tourists, including around 15 per cent from around the world.
With jungle tourism a major source of revenue and employing over 80,000 directly besides a few lakhs indirectly, the SI's threat has sent alarm bells ringing among the tiger reserves, the workers and other stakeholders.
Satpuda Foundation President Kishor Rithe attacked SI for what he termed as its "suo moto, anti-India campaign" which has no locus standi, and without being aware of the ground realities.
"Our tribals and forest-dwellers have been protecting these forests and reaping the benefits through wildlife tourism.
Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) alone earns more than Rs 50 million (Rs 5 crore) annually, of which a major share is ploughed back to the local community," Rithe told IANS.
He said the TATR and other tiger reserves adhere to the Supreme Court orders and NTCA guidelines on this which has created a win-win situation for all concerned.
Condemning SI's campaign, Rithe pointed out that the tribals and villagers living in and around the forests of various tiger reserves are happy with this as they earn livelihood from tourism and conservation unlike bush meat in Africa.
NNTR's Mukund Dhurve said they would take their message to all the seven tiger reserves in central India, communicate the sentiments and opinion of the Indian tribal communities to the global arena about the misleading and mischievous campaign initiated by SI.
"It's totally unethical to appeal to foreign tourists in the name of the Indian tribal communities.
Nobody has authorised SI to speak on their behalf. We shall request the Indian government to take stern action against SI," Rithe said.
PTR's Bandu Uike said the SI move was shocking since "there are no forced evictions of tribals anywhere, including Pench", and on the contrary, many villagers around the buffer zones are voluntarily coming forward to relocate as per the government policies.
On an average, each tiger reserve generates around 1,500 direct employment opportunities, apart from a few thousand indirect jobs, besides the revenues generated through various tourism activities activities.
Of the estimated nearly ten million wildlife tourists in all these tiger reserves, around 15 per cent are foreigners, and SI's "irresponsible appeal" will severely hit the revenues, Rithe said.
Since the foreign tourists also visit other famous places like the Taj Mahal or Ajanta-Ellora Caves, this could hit the overall tourism sector in India, he cautioned, urging the authorities concerned to act in the matter.