Ecotourism to Tadoba’s aid

To prevent accidental tiger attacks and stop the dependency of locals entirely on the forest, ecotourism was started in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. Today locals are reaping the benefits of the initiative, writes Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

The Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve spanning 622.87 sq km was established in 1993 in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. This critical central Indian landscape has humans and tigers living together. For many years, it was a peaceful coexistence as the local Gond Adivasis revere the tiger.

In 2006, however, the scenario changed. There was a spate of tiger attacks leading to 60 deaths in three years. This was due to tigers straying outside the core area of the reserve. The attacks happened in the buffer zone having about 80 villages as well as in the wildlife corridors when communities entered forest to answer nature’s call, graze cattle, collect firewood and guard crops.

“The mortality rate of tigers declined due to good protection. With more tigers, there was more dispersal in the buffer area. But as the buffer zone and wildlife corridors are human-dominated, accidental attacks happened,” said Poonam Dhanwatey from TRACT, a non-profit.

To prevent encounters and stop the dependency of locals entirely on the forest, ecotourism was started. Today locals are benefiting from it. Tadoba, which has 80 tigers inside the reserve and 200 in the larger landscape, generates one of the highest revenues for any tiger reserve in India.

Benefitting from tiger tourism

Pramod Bhoyar owns a resort in the buffer area of Tadoba.  Bhoyar has been running the place, Vasundhara Retreat, for eight years where the rates are Rs 6500, including meals. Besides regular safaris, there is kayaking, boating and nature walks for tourists.

Kushagra Pathak, deputy director of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, buffer zone, explained that the idea behind ecotourism was to protect the forest from poaching and illegal tree felling. “Locals should feel that they belong to Tadoba. So, it is in their interest to ensure that there is no forest fire as they derive economic benefits from it.”

To ensure that people living in the villages of the buffer are not left behind, skill development training was arranged to generate employment. Locals were trained in repairing home appliances. Many people joined as gypsy drivers, trained as tourist guides and learnt how to make bamboo items.

In association with the forest department, TRACT also supported the implementation of eco-tourism in Tadoba. “As the buffer zone has good tiger sightings, a proposal was made that tourism can help secure the area. We have 16 buffer zones and each provides employment benefits. The buffer is spread over 1130 sq km,” Dhanwatey added.

Along with men, women too are deriving benefits. Sapna Sagore, a resident of a village in the buffer area, received sewing machine training for six months in 2019. Today, many women like her work from home.

Women have been trained in ‘agarbatti’ making also. Puja Vinod Yedme from Agarzari village was trained in 2020 for two months. But after she got her last payment of Rs 6000 in December last there has been a lull in the initiative. Yedme hoped it would resume soon.

“Those who attended the training were taught how to make powder and the bamboo sticks. Earlier, the forest department sold the products on our behalf but then the tender was given to outsiders. About 15 women used to make agarbattis,”she said.

Conservation measures

As no other industry is permitted inside the buffer which has farms, forests, animals and resorts, eco-tourism is the only way to ensure people’s participation in conservation.

This was not difficult as traditionally the Gonds being animists worship the tiger. There are tiger statues and rituals take place around them. There is a belief that if the animal is appeased, no harm will come to the people.

Apart from ecotourism offering locals job opportunities, there has been a social revolution through Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s Jan Van VikasYojana.  After it was approved, subsidised LPG cylinders, toilets and solar lights were introduced in the villages.

But though forest dependency has reduced to a great extent, firewood is still used for heating water. It is difficult to totally wipe out dependency on firewood even though going to the forest is not easy for people. Apart from threats due to an increased number of tigers, there are snakes and the intense summer heat to account for.

Guide Devidas Mahadeo Mangam was happy to learn about the flora and fauna of the reserve as part of training. Initially, a daily wager, he has been working in Tadoba for a decade now. “As the number of tigers has increased, the number of people from the villages going to the forest has reduced or else they go in groups. But as they derive benefits from tourism, dependency on forest has reduced by up to 70 percent,” Mangam said.

His colleague SubhashYedme pointed out that sometimes women still go for firewood as many cannot afford gas cylinders. Yedme is from Agarzari village, famous for its butterfly garden.

Earlier many people used to go to the Chandrapur power station for work. But with ecotourism peaking, the buffer area remains open even during the monsoon to cater to jungle lovers. To manage tourists, the guides receive training from time to time for 15-20 days. Yedme, who shows visitors the beautiful backwaters of the Irai dam, confessed that though he knew a lot about wildlife he was unfamiliar with English names. Now, he regales tourists with his tales.