Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Tiger’s Trials

One of India’s most popular tiger reserves, Jim Corbett National Park, in Uttarakhand is the focus of a Supreme Court decree which has blamed the state’s former forest minister for multiple irregularities.

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While blaming the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for “serious flaws” in its policy that has allowed zoo tigers to be sourced for safaris within these reserves, the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) has held Uttarakhand’s former forest minister Harak Singh Rawat “largely responsible for the mess” of illegal construction activities inside the Corbett Tiger Reserve. These included tree-felling and construction work for setting up a tiger safari facility meant to display captive tigers for tourists.

In its report submitted to the Supreme Court on January 24 on a petition filed by advocate Gaurav Kumar Bansal, the CEC has indicted Rawat and then Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Kishan Chand for construction activities in connection with the tiger safari and other illegal projects in the Pakhro and Morghatti forest areas in 2021. Faulting the NTCA for revising its 2016 guideline in 2019 to allow bringing of tigers from zoos and other safaris to safaris inside tiger reserves, the CEC report has said such practices were “bound to endanger” wild tigers since zoo animals often harbour potentially deadly diseases.

In the report, the CEC has sought an amendment or withdrawal of NTCA guideline that allow locating tiger safaris within buffer and fringe areas of tiger reserves. The CEC has stated that “the sequence of events leads to only one conclusion that the then forest minister was the main architect of the entire matter”. It has recommended that the Supreme Court issue a notice to Rawat and give him an opportunity of hearing. The Court has also given green signal to the Uttarakhand Vigilance Department to continue legal proceedings against forest officials involved in the irregularities.

While being the DFO in the Kalagarh Division of Corbett, Chand faced serious allegations of illegal construction and felling of trees in Pakhro range. These illegal works were done in the name of tiger safari. Rawat laid the foundation stone for the Pakhro tiger safari in December 2020. He had said that during his visit to the Corbett Tiger Reserve in 2019, for the filming of Man vs Wild, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about developing a safari in the area to allow visitors to confirm tiger sightings.

The Forest Survey of India, the umbrella organization under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, had, in its 81-page survey report, found that around 6,093 trees had been illegally cut in the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Uttarakhand’s forest department had claimed to have obtained clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the tiger safari project and said that only 163 trees would be cut down. Rawat was the forest minister during the time the trees were felled. He was expelled last year ahead of the assembly elections in the state, following which he joined the Congress.

In its report, the CEC has said that Rawat had got Chand posted to the Kalagarh Forest Division without any recommendation from the forest department. The report has also mentioned that this was done to develop Kotdwar—the constituency Rawat represented till 2022—as a tourist destination at the cost of forest and wildlife. The report has also said that it is most unfortunate that all the senior functionaries of the state government preferred to remain mute spectators to the glaring irregularities.

Further, the report recommended that the Central Zoo Authority should stop approving zoos and safaris within tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, and along animal corridors and dispersal routes. It has suggested that the environment ministry should amend its guidelines to discourage the use of wildlife habitat for wildlife tourism activities that are non-site specific, such as zoos. It has further recommended that the Uttarakhand government should demolish all constructions done for the tiger safari inside the Corbett Tiger Reserve, barring the minimum facilities required for running an animal rescue centre—an off-display facility not meant for tourists.

In 2021, the Supreme Court had stayed an order allowing buses of a private operator to ply within the core area of the tiger reserve in Jim Corbett National Park. A bench of then Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian had issued notice to the centre, Uttarakhand, NTCA, National Board of Wildlife, and officials of Jim Corbett National Park and sought their responses.

Bansal, who filed the petition, told the bench that the decision of the Jim Corbett National Park was in violation of the Wildlife Protection Act. He alleged that forest officials of Uttarakhand in order to provide wrongful gain to a private sector company had allowed them to ply their private buses within the core area of the tiger reserve. Bansal said that as per provisions of Wildlife Protection Act, it is required to be kept as an inviolate area for the purpose of tiger conservation. 

He further submitted that director, Corbett Tiger Reserve, vide its office order, dated December 23, 2020, has allowed buses of a private sector company to ply within the core area of Corbett Tiger Reserve. This, he said, not only violated the law of land, but also compromised with the safety, protection and conservation of the national animal. He further said that Section 38 (O) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, provides that tiger reserves shall not be diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, and in case it is required, then it is mandatory for Uttarakhand and its forest department officials to do so only after taking approval from National Board for Wildlife and on the advice of NTCA.

The Jim Corbett National Park is a part of the larger Corbett Tiger Reserve and lies in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. The majestic landscape of Corbett is well-known for its tiger population. Established in 1936, Corbett has the distinction of being India’s oldest and most prestigious national park. It is also the place where Project Tiger was first launched in 1973. The Park comprises an area of 520.8 square kilometres (201.1 square miles) of hills, riverine belts, marshy depressions, grasslands, and a large lake. The elevation ranges from 1,300 feet to 4,000 feet (400 metres to 1,220 metres). The forest covers almost 73% of the Park, while 10% of the area consists of grasslands. It houses around 110 tree species, 50 species of mammals, 580 bird species and 25 reptile species, apart from tigers and other wildlife.

In April 2008, the NCTA had expressed serious concern that protection systems had weakened and poachers had infiltrated into the Park. Monitoring of wild animals in the prescribed format has not been followed despite advisories and observations made during field visits. Also, the monthly monitoring report of field evidence related to tigers has not been received since 2006. NCTA said that in the “absence of ongoing monitoring protocol in a standardised manner, it would be impossible to forecast and keep track of untoward happenings in the area targeted by poachers”. A cement road has been built through the Park after a Supreme Court order. The road has become a thoroughfare between Kalagarh and Ramnagar. Constantly increasing vehicle traffic on this road is affecting wildlife, especially the tigers of the reserve named after Jim Corbett, the famed hunter of man-eating tigers turned naturalist and author. 

—By Adarsh Kumar and India Legal Bureau

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