[Interview] Former forest officer Rajiv Bhartari on zoning in Corbett Tiger Reserve and its impacts

  • In 2016, Rajiv Bhartari, now a retired forest officer, set out to understand how the core, buffer, and tourism zones evolved over time in Corbett Tiger Reserve.
  • In conversation with Mongabay-India, Bhartari who has had a unique insider’s view of Corbett Tiger Reserve since 1993, talks about the process, challenges and consequences of different zoning policies in Corbett Tiger Reserve.
  • Bhartari opines that young forest officers must make a concerted effort to understand an area’s history, and the ecological and environmental history. This also means being sensitive to the usage of the area by local resident communities and traditional uses of biodiversity and cultural practices.

Fifty years ago, with the launch of Project Tiger, the iconic Corbett National Park became Corbett Tiger Reserve. Today, it’s celebrated as India’s success story, hosting one of the highest tiger densities in the world. And like all tiger reserves in India, it operates on the basis of two spatially distinct units — the core and the buffer. Within these two, one can also find tourism zones and spatially exclusive units meant to control where and when visitors can access the reserve and spot the elusive tiger.

Today, zoning is accepted as the norm in tiger reserves. But how did the core, buffer and tourism zones evolve over time? And what impacts did these geographical units have?

In 2016, Rajiv Bhartari, now a retired forest officer, set out to find answers to these questions for his PhD at the University of Montana, US. And he chose to study Corbett Tiger Reserve — a park where he’s held several positions of authority.

Rajiv Bhartari, a retired forest officer. Photo by Kamal Sharma.
Rajiv Bhartari, a retired forest officer. Photo by Kamal Sharma.

In fact, Bhartari’s relationship with Corbett Tiger Reserve has spanned decades. He was the Deputy Director of the reserve from 1993 to 1999. Then the Director from 2005 to 2008. More recently, between 2018 and 2020, he was the Chief Wildlife Warden, then the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Uttarakhand. Bhartari was also the Conservator of Forests, then the Chief Conservator of Forests for ecotourism in the Uttarakhand Forest Department.

Bhartari has had a unique insider’s view of Corbett Tiger Reserve since 1993. From managing the workings of the reserve to launching several tourism initiatives, he has done it all. But over time, he also realised that the practice of claiming and converting spaces into “zones” for tiger conservation, is also a political one. So, for his PhD, he chose to question the conventional idea of zoning, through the lens of history and politics.

It wasn’t easy switching from a forest officer who was once in several positions of power to being a researcher who questions the consequences of that power. “But I would say that I’m now an evolved forest officer, and continue to evolve,” Bhartari says. “I’ve returned to that phase when I was a college student, which is to look at a situation in a more integrative, wholistic way rather than from an agency’s interest or point-of-view.”

Rajiv Bhartari recently spoke with Mongabay-India about what he learnt about zoning at Corbett Tiger Reserve during his PhD, and how that’s changed his views of tiger conservation in India. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Map of Corbett Tiger Reserve. Map by Rajiv Bhartari.
Map of Corbett Tiger Reserve. Map by Rajiv Bhartari.

Mongabay: Why did you choose to investigate the idea of zoning at Corbett Tiger Reserve?

Rajiv Bhartari: Core-buffer zoning in protected areas is a spatial strategy for the management of large cats such as tigers to increase population and limit human wildlife conflict. It involves a binary system based on the degree of protection given to the species, being greater in core area, where needs of carnivores are privileged, and to a lesser degree in buffer area that give preference to human uses to offset restrictions placed on human activities in core zones. Corbett Tiger Reserve harbours the largest tiger population in any protected area in the world; it also has one of the highest tiger densities. It offers a good case for analysis of core-buffer zoning.

Zoning is a form of territorialisation too as it involves the establishment of new boundaries, regulation of access and control of use through authority. Zoning in the context of tiger conservation has been previously questioned in the literature on two counts. One is from the environmental justice point of view, that is, how different people are treated during the formation of zones. The other is from a socio-ecological perspective, whether it is necessary to separate tigers and humans for tigers to be conserved or can there be coexistence.

I chose zoning as the topic of my research as I realised that there was a backstory to the allocation of space in Corbett Tiger Reserve, that was yet to be told. There is a ton of literature, dialogue and intense legal battles centred around zoning in the urban context of land use planning. But in the case of protected areas and sustainable tourism, zoning is accepted as the gospel truth; that this is the way to conserve and there is no other alternative. In the Indian context of tiger reserves, I found a complete lack of attention to zoning, from a rigorous research point-of-view. I was interested in finding how and why the Indian state and tiger conservation authorities were able to institutionalise their views and interests in the allocation of spaces via zoning in Corbett Tiger Reserve, as well as how other stakeholders in the landscape viewed and were impacted by them.

Mongabay: Did it concern you that you were also a forest officer, holding several positions of power, and that it might affect your research or interpretation?

Rajiv Bhartari: I have had a long and close association with Corbett Tiger Reserve. In retrospect, I would say that the choice of topic for my research made it a very challenging task for me. First, I have a biology background. I studied botany and molecular biology for my post-graduation at the Delhi University. Three decades later after my post-graduation, I found myself doing my graduate education and research in social sciences, something totally alien to me.

Second, my involvement with the development and promotion of tourism in the Corbett Tiger Reserve landscape presented considerable complexity for my research, because to look objectively and critically at this complex field of tiger tourism also meant interrogating my own role in it. I am also aware that myself, and what my scholarship has produced, will continue to affect both policies and future actions on the ground.

I have tried to overcome the limitations of my situation by doing especially three things. First, I chose to use document analysis and maps as the primary data source to minimise subjectivity, though I recognise this still required interpretation as well as which documents I chose to analyse. Second, I tried to triangulate with other research methods, including surveys, focus group discussion and interviews to augment information and enrich validity. And finally, to test the validity, I did my best to continually share findings of my research with my research committee, knowledgeable forest officers, and forest staff at various levels for their views. I tried to include the differences in my analysis. I strove to include other participants’ voices in my research that conflicted with my position, but clearly, I could not include all viewpoints.

Map of tourism zones in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Map by Rajiv Bhartari.
Map of tourism zones in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Map by Rajiv Bhartari.

Mongabay: In your thesis, you divide the evolution of zoning at Corbett Tiger Reserve into three phases. What key changes did you find over time?

Rajiv Bhartari: I chose to divide zoning into three phases on the basis of ‘rupture points’ to make the context more understandable to the readers. The most remarkable change during this period has been in the understanding and practice of buffer zone in Corbett Tiger Reserve, which over time, has begun to resemble the core area.

In 1973, with the launch of Project Tiger, Corbett National Park was declared a tiger reserve. This marked the first rupture point. Phase I summarises the developments between 1973 and 1990. During this phase, the tiger reserve area was restricted to 520.84 sq kilometres and the boundaries of Corbett National Park and Corbett Tiger Reserve were synonymous. Unlike other tiger reserves, there were no villages inside the national park [at the time]; and the core and buffer zones were both demarcated within the national park.

The essential difference between core and buffer area during this phase was that in the core area, no forestry operations were permitted, while in buffer area forestry operations could be continued, although forestry operations within the national park were stopped in 1975. As such, the entire land of the national park was under government ownership, and zoning during this phase was essentially a land management decision of the forest department.

Things changed dramatically in 1991, which marked the second rupture point. This is when the Corbett Tiger Reserve was increased in size by two and a half times to 1318.54 sq. kms (The area was later reduced to 1288.31 sq km in 2000 at the time of bifurcation of Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh). The entire Corbett National Park was made a core area, and the buffer zone was created outside the national park, by adding the Kalagarh Forest Division, including Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) and parts of Ramnagar and Terai West Forest Divisions.

Unlike Phase I when the entire tiger reserve land was under government ownership, during Phase II, which spanned from 1991 to 2005, the buffer zone included reserved forests, revenue villages, private and communal lands. With this legal variation in land ownership, there came greater flexibility for management action. Forestry operations in reserved forests in the buffer zone gradually gave way to restrictions on land use, public transport and other livelihood activities, efforts for wildlife protection, habitat development and initiatives for community participation and reducing human wildlife conflict.

The third and the most recent rupture point came in 2006. This was when the WLPA (1972) underwent a major amendment, when legal provisions for tiger reserves were added to the parent Act.

The original WLPA of 1972 did not mention or define a tiger reserve. Neither did it define a core or buffer area. But the Amendment Act 2006 defines the core, or the critical tiger habitat, as an area that needs to be kept as “inviolate” for the purpose of tiger conservation. Meanwhile, the buffer is an area that requires a lesser degree of habitat protection, and where coexistence between humans and wildlife is promoted. These legal definitions make the existence and role of a “core” and a “buffer” more rigid than before.

During Phase III, from 2006 to the present, although the total area of Corbett Tiger Reserve remained unaffected, the areas of the core and buffer zones became altered. The Sonanadi WLS, which was initially included as part of buffer, got upgraded to a “core” area, so the core area of Corbett Tiger Reserve increased from 520.84 to 821.99 sq km, while the buffer zone became reduced from 767.50 sq. km to 466.32 sq. km. Sonanadi WLS acquired a supra-PA status. Grazing and other activities that are legally permissible in sanctuaries became prohibited in the Sonanadi WLS.

In 2010, both the core and buffer areas of Corbett Tiger Reserve were legally notified as per the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act of 2006 — so, the core and buffer areas were now cast in stone. But the notification of the buffer area mentions only the reserved forest blocks and compartments. It doesn’t talk about the private and communal land enclosed as enclaves or the rights of the villagers. That creates a problem. To an outsider, the buffer area on a map will appear like a homogenous area of reserved forests under the ownership of the government and control of the forest department. But the reality is not, as private and communal land is landlocked within the buffer area.

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Mongabay: What were the consequences of including outside areas as “buffer”, and Sonanadi WLS being designated a “core”, on the people living there previously?

Rajiv Bhartari: One of the principal strategies of Project Tiger for creating habitat for tigers and building prey populations was to make it free from human disturbance. A key action to achieve this has been relocation or displacement of villages that may have resided there in the past. But unlike other tiger reserves in India, such as Kanha, where several villages were relocated from the core area, relocation from the Corbett National Park was not necessary as the human settlements inside the park boundary had already been evicted during the British colonial rule at the time of the park formation in 1936.

Relocation of villages from the buffer area of tiger reserves is not required as per the Project Tiger’s co-existence agenda. Nevertheless, soon after the addition of the buffer zone in 1991, the Uttar Pradesh (later Uttarakhand) forest department relocated five revenue villages from the newly added buffer area of Corbett Tiger Reserve. In response to requests from the village residents, initially the four villages of Dhara, Jhirna, Birna and Kothirau (411 families), located in the buffer area on the Southern boundary of the Corbett National Park in Pauri Garhwal district, were relocated in 1994 through funding from Project Tiger scheme. Subsequently, the relocation of the fifth village Laldhang, located along the same boundary but in Nainital district was completed in 2004. The factors that led to this voluntary relocation included a high degree of human wildlife conflict due to increased protection of wildlife and lack of access to developmental projects. The relocation was regarded as successful by all parties, with success being attributed to good communication between villagers and the forest department and especially a comprehensive financial package. The displaced families were resettled by clearing 221.63 hectares of forest land in adjoining Terai West Forest Division.

The NTCA has a policy of providing funds for relocation from the core area only. But with the change in the status of the Sonanadi WLS from buffer area to core area in 2010, the NTCA gave a budgetary grant for the relocation of the nomadic Gujjars from the sanctuary. In 2014, the Uttarakhand Forest Department relocated 181 families of Gujjars to Gaindikhatta in Haridwar Forest Division. As a result of this relocation, the Sonanadi WLS is today devoid of grazing and human settlements, just like the Corbett National Park, though the area had a huge historical legacy of grazing in these forests.

Corbett Tiger Reserve presents a peculiar situation: Because of the long history of conservation measures which greatly restrict local control of private land, high tiger density and a high level of crop depredation, village residents find it difficult to survive in the buffer area. So, relocation is in demand by the remaining residents and nomadic Gujjars as revealed by their numerous petitions to the government and ongoing court cases. The Tiger Conservation Plan for Corbett Tiger Reserve mentions the state government’s ban in 2012 on landuse change and sale of 46 chaks (enclaves of private land). Of these ten villages, relocation of only two villages — Teria and Pand, is in the pipeline. It is held up owing to judicial stalemate.

Dhikala Zone in Jim Corbett National Park. Photo by Ashok.delhi17/Wikimedia Commons.
Dhikala Zone in Jim Corbett National Park. Photo by Ashok.delhi17/Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: You also looked at another kind of zoning — tourism zones. How did these zones evolve?

Rajiv Bhartari: Since its very inception, tourism has played a very important role in what Corbett is today. Corbett National Park created in 1936 was modelled after Yellowstone National Park in USA, where enjoyment by visitors was an important goal. Jim Corbett, a legendry hunter turned conservationist, after whom the national park is named, would accompany influential visitors, particularly Lord Malcolm Hailey, the then Governor of United Provinces in British India, for angling and tiger shooting. That’s how Corbett was able to influence the authorities and get India’s first national park created. That’s the unique thing about Corbett NP, that Corbett NP was formed keeping both tigers and tourism in mind.

Lord Malcolm Hailey was then the Governor of United Provinces, later Uttar Pradesh. What we call the Corbett Tiger Reserve today began as Hailey National Park in 1936. Post-independence in 1947, Hailey National Park was renamed as Ramganga National Park in 1955, and subsequently Corbett National Park in 1957 after the death of Jim Corbett.

But tourism in Corbett NP was not always limited to tourism zones. F.W. Champion, the Divisional Forest Officer of Kalagarh forest division, was particularly critical of the ‘no go’ zones. Prior to launch of Project Tiger, visitors could come and stay in any of the forest rest houses in Corbett NP and there were no spatial restrictions.

The concept of zoning was first introduced as part of Project Tiger. After the launch of Project Tiger, tourism activities were restricted in the sanctum sanctorum, but continued in other parts of the national park. In the early years, the boundaries of tourism zones were not strict and the entire Dhikala range was called the tourism range. There was a public bus service right up to Dhikala; they could walk, fish, and go on elephant rides. In 1985, the 25th Working Session of the IUCN Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas (CNPPA) was held in Corbett National Park in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the first national park to be established on Asian mainland. Participants went on field excursions by foot, in boats, vehicles, and elephants, which bore a testimony to the freedom exercised by the tourists.

But there were increasing concerns about the large number of tourists that were coming to Dhikala. Things changed in the early 1990s, when a ban was placed on day-visits to Dhikala, which had a forest lodge situated in the heart of Corbett Tiger Reserve with over thirty rooms. The boundaries of the Dhikala zone also became more formalised where earlier they were less rigid. This transformed the area into an exclusive tourism space with tightly regulated access providing ecotourism experience only to the visitors making overnight stays.

Once this ban was placed, the resorts that had started coming up outside the tiger reserve said they needed something for their clients. So, a new Bijrani tourism zone was crafted in 1991 for the benefit of day visitors by adding parts of the newly acquired buffer area to the area of the Corbett National Park. The Bijrani tourism zone became popular very quickly as it was convenient for the resorts which were based in nearby Dhikuli and Garjia villages to send clients to Bijrani and bring back, and soon after its establishment it had more tiger sightings.

After that, tourism zones continued to unfold largely in the buffer area. Jhirna tourism zone was created in 1996 and Domunda tourism zone in 2005. Tourism zone formation remained unaltered after the WLPA Amendment Act 2006. In a short period of five years, three more tourism zones were rolled out in quick succession in buffer area: Dhela tourism zone in 2016, Pakhro tourism zone in 2019, and the most recent Garjia tourism zone in 2020. Corbett Tiger Reserve today has only three tourism zones in the core area and five in the buffer area.

Tiger and tourists in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Photo by Rajiv Bhartari.
Tiger and tourists in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Photo by Rajiv Bhartari.

Mongabay: The buffer tourism zones were created after relocating villages. What did it take to turn a village into an area that’s actually suitable for wildlife?

Rajiv Bhartari: Creation of new tourism zones requires road network for movement of vehicles (as walking on foot is prohibited), and opportunities for wildlife viewing. While it was not difficult to make roads in the relocated village sites, converting abandoned agricultural fields of relocated villages for wildlife viewing is a challenging exercise as it requires ecological restoration and extensive habitat development, especially grassland development. This is because prey base is higher in grasslands, and tiger abundance depends on prey base availability. Left on its own, tree species like ber (Zizyphus mauritiana), and invasive species like lantana (Lantana camara) quickly take over the fields, and tree cover develops.

Efforts were made twice to develop abandoned agricultural fields into grasslands in the relocated village sites of Dhara, Jhirna and Kothi Rau villages located on the southern boundary of the tiger but in both instances led to failures. Subsequently, the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India, sanctioned a project to Delhi University. The research team led by Professor C.R. Babu devised a “cut-root stock method” for the removal of lantana, an invasive alien species that poses a menace in 60 countries across three continents. In 2006, we applied the method to a 60-hectare plot in Laldhang village on an experimental basis, and when found feasible, we expanded it to other areas both in the core and buffer area. Today, the Jhirna and Dhela tourism zones that harbour these grasslands boast of one of the highest tiger sightings by the visitors to Corbett Tiger Reserve.

Mongabay: In your thesis, you write that community-based tourism didn’t really take off, and tourism is dominated by private resorts. Could you tell why this happened?

Rajiv Bhartari: That is where politics comes. There are basically two types of contrasting tourism spaces: enclavic and heterogenous area. These differ not only in the different types of tourists that they cater to, the range of tourist activities that they offer, but also the way benefits are distributed. Tourism zones within Corbett Tiger Reserve and large private resorts epitomise enclavic tourism spaces that are bound and highly regulated, while community-based tourism areas are akin to the heterogenous areas where the infrastructure is shared by the visitors and the host community.

For nearly two decades, from 1973 (when Corbett National Park became Corbett Tiger Reserve) until 1991 (when the Bijrani day visit zone was formed with parts of buffer area), there were no privately-owned tourism resorts around Corbett Tiger Reserve. The private sector tourism industry around Corbett Tiger Reserve emerged during Phase II alongside liberalisation of the Indian economy and acceptance of tourism as a means of development. Resort development outside the Corbett Tiger Reserve from 1991 onwards is also closely linked to the expansion of the Corbett Tiger Reserve and the formation of the Bijrani day-visit zone in 1991. Most of the resorts have been built in adjoining revenue villages through the conversion of agricultural land.

In 2003, Government of India provided income tax and excise concessions in the newly formed state of Uttarakhand to attract investments for ecotourism hotels, resorts, spa, entertainment, amusement parks and ropeways. The benefits included 100 percent exemption from payment of income tax for an initial period of five years and thereafter at reduced rates for another five years and one hundred percent exemption on excise duty for a period of ten years from the date of the commencement of the project. This policy initiative spurred the growth of the resorts around Corbett leading to a ten-fold increase in the numbers of resorts around Corbett within a decade of Uttarakhand’s formation. There are today 160 such private establishments, the highest around any tiger reserve in India, and they dominate the Corbett Tiger Reserve landscape.

Community-based tourism languished for want of similar nurturing policies. For example, Kyari, located not far from the Amdanda Gate of the Bijrani tourism zone, was one of the first villages in Uttarakhand where a community-based tourism project was launched in 2000. Village residents identified assets and developed ecotourism products offering authentic natural and cultural experiences with the help of Wildrift, an adventure tour operator. However, within a decade, internal divisions within the community and external pressures from the forest department led to the closure of Camp Kyari. One breakaway group now runs Camp Hornbill in the village along with several homestays and machans. Their main challenge is restrictions on foot-based activities in adjoining forest areas. Meanwhile, over eight private resorts have emerged in Kyari village and the villagers have to face intense competition. Many more are in the offing and the residents fear that soon Kyari may have up to twenty-five private resorts and hotels.

Communities are fraught with divisions, rivalries and caste conflicts and have politics of their own. And so, even when you involve the communities, the benefits don’t flow to everyone in a fair manner. Maybe community-based tourism might have been possible in Corbett Tiger Reserve twenty years ago, and we did try it out, but there were many challenges. In a very developed situation like Corbett today, it’s difficult to imagine how community-based ecotourism can be developed.

The hope for community involvement in tourism has given way to entrepreneurship in varied private and individual-based tourism development. Local communities have become a part of the tourism industry in Corbett in a variety of ways. In recent years, the promotion of homestays by the government of Uttarakhand has benefitted the rural areas. Today, many villagers rather than selling their agricultural land are entering the tourism industry by establishing homestays, restaurants, souvenir shops and small camps as well as buying jeeps for conducting tiger safaris and renting out merchandise.

Asiatic elephants at Jim Corbett National Park. Photo by Vikram Gupchup/Wikimedia Commons.
Asiatic elephants at Jim Corbett National Park. Photo by Vikram Gupchup/Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: Do we know if the core, buffer and tourism zones are all serving the purpose they were designed for?

Rajiv Bhartari: In the early 1970s, Paul Leyhausen, adviser to IUCN, had projected the requirement for a viable population of tigers to be a contiguous population of 300 tigers in protected areas of approximately 2000 sq. km. But the Task Force set up by the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL) in 1972 could not locate this anywhere in India at the time.

During the last 50 years, though, zoning has enabled both the realisation of such a large area and a remarkably high density of tigers in Corbett Tiger Reserve. This was helped by the mandatory legal requirement to make core area as inviolate. The legal differences between sanctuary and national park constituting the core area are erased. And it helps combine two legally different types of areas without having to increase the national park area or declare a new protected area to create a large tract of area. In the case of Corbett Tiger Reserve, the formal legal notification of the Sonanadi WLS and Corbett NP as the core area, spread over to 821.54 sq. kms, led to achieving the goal of a core area of around 800-1200 sq. kms. as suggested by the NTCA in its guidelines.

But the All-India Tiger Estimation 2018 revealed that the tiger densities vary throughout the core area and the buffer area. And some of the highest tiger densities found in the southwest corner in buffer area of Corbett. The high density of tigers in the buffer area as compared to the core area is a cause of concern as it is contrary to the planned scheme. (According to the NTCA’s Guidelines for preparation of Tiger Conservation Plan, the core is meant for the exclusive protection of tigers and act as “reproductive surplus” areas, with minimal human disturbance. The buffer on the other hand is meant for multiple uses, from safeguarding the integrity of the core and providing space for young adults and older tigers to fostering coexistence with local people.) This finding raises important questions about the efficacy of the core-buffer area zoning, and in particular, what conditions gave rise to higher tiger densities in some parts of the buffer area? The answer to this question remains a lingering, significant question for those concerned about tiger conservation in the future; this most pointedly speaks to the future of zoning. What positive role, if any, can it play in tiger conservation or protected areas more generally? Does the key problem lie with how zoning has been envisioned, or in the way it has been implemented?

One important thing to note is that the buffer area has a very different purpose compared to the core. (According to the NTCA’s Guidelines for preparation of Tiger Conservation Plan, the core is meant for the exclusive protection of tigers and act as “reproductive surplus” areas, with minimal human disturbance. The buffer on the other hand is meant for multiple uses, from safeguarding the integrity of the core and providing space for young adults and older tigers to fostering coexistence with local people).

But the All-India Tiger Estimation exercise does not provide tiger abundance and density figures separately for core or buffer area: they don’t make a distinction at all between the two zones. So how do you assess whether the purpose of both the zones has been achieved or not? How do you evaluate the zones, if your data itself is not segregated for these two zones?

Likewise, there is an inherent conflict between the objectives of the buffer area and tourism zoning.  Once a tourism zone is demarcated, entry of villagers in the enclosed forests for their subsistence needs and movement on roads is gradually eliminated as the sight of villagers would ruin the visitor who seek wilderness experience.

The emphasis on wildlife protection and habitat development in the buffer area led to an increase in human wildlife conflict. It also imposed restrictions on villagers from using historic resources and curtailment of their rights, decline in public transport on major forest roads, and relocation of five villages to areas outside the tiger reserve. The much-reduced buffer area of Corbett Tiger Reserve is now far from being a zone of peaceful coexistence and eco-development as envisaged in legislation. Instead, it emerges as an arena of intense conflict between tiger and tourism interests, together pitted against the interests of remaining local communities.

Mongabay: During your research, was there a finding that surprised you in particular?

Rajiv Bhartari: The discovery of the panchayat van (community forests), unique to Uttarakhand state, and their potential role in tiger conservation in the Corbett landscape was truly remarkable. (Panchayat van refers to the legally demarcated village forests under the control of the Village Forest Council, whereas van panchayat refers to the Village Forest Council or governance institution which the state of Uttarakhand granted authority for managing these forests.) In the powers of managing the forest resides with the locally elected sarpanch (headman) of the van panchayat (village forest committee). Survey conducted by the forest department in 2018 revealed a total of 118 panchayat van scattered over 49.03 sq. km. within the Ramnagar Forest Division, Lansdowne Forest Division and Additional Soil Conservation Forest Division, Ramnagar, forming around 4% of the Corbett landscape. The survey also brought out that almost 90% of the panchayat van having presence of tigers. Six panchayat van are specifically located within the boundary of the tiger reserve.

What was also surprising was that these panchayat van didn’t feature in any official document; neither the notification issued for the buffer area of Corbett Tiger Reserve in 2010 nor the tiger conservation plan formulated in 2015. The role that many of these panchayat van may be playing in tiger conservation is not fully appreciated and needs to be understood. One can also envision a very different kind of dispersed tourism development in these panchayat van. However, forest officials may have fears about private interests taking over the forest land in the name of the community. So, adequate safeguards will need to be built in to prevent encroachments in such cases.

Mongabay: Do you think there is also a danger, that once researchers and the forest department start taking more interest in panchayat van, stricter restrictions will be placed on the people and how the forests are used?

Rajiv Bhartari: This is a very pertinent question. In December 2018, when, for the first time, camera traps were placed by the WII team in Dhikolia, Dhamdhar, Juhi Papdi, and Kartiya panchayat van situated on the northern boundary of Corbett Tiger Reserve, the camera trap images revealed the presence of three tigers. WII researchers showed the camera trap images to the villagers, expecting the villagers to be happy about the fact that tigers resided in their community forests. The researchers were taken aback when on seeing the images, one of the villagers remarked “and now you will take away our forest from us.”

In another such incident, I inquired from a village representative of Jhudungu village which has private land and panchayat van enclosed within the buffer area, why the villagers do not use their panchayat van for ecotourism activities by using available access through the road from Haldukhal, a small town situated on the northern side of CTR, where there are no restrictions on movement of vehicles. I was surprised when the village head woman said that what guarantee is there that once tourism takes off, the forest department would not start regulating access by establishing a gate and start collecting fees. Both these incidents bring out the innate fear of the villagers about new restrictions on resource use in the name of the tiger.

Mongabay: As a forest officer what do you think of this fear?

Rajiv Bhartari: Even after seventy-five years of India’s independence, forest management in our country continues to be encumbered by the colonial legacy and mind set. The urge to regard forests as one’s own territory and to safeguard and prevent others, notably local villagers, from benefitting from it is all pervasive. The hostile attitude of the forest officials towards customary rights and uses prevents local communities from fully benefitting from their natural resources.

Mongabay: After having done your PhD, what are some of your key takeaways?

Rajiv Bhartari: It has been argued that the attitude in conservation programmes towards tigers is anthropocentric, and that decisions regarding how tourism is managed in tiger reserves are driven more by human needs than benefits for the tiger. This is amply brought about by the manner in which tourism zones have proliferated within Corbett Tiger Reserve, attracting resort development on its periphery in clusters leading to blocking of the corridors.

NTCA Tourism Guidelines 2012 espouse community-based tourism. But when it comes to the allocation of space, enclavic tourism zones have been prescribed in the Guidelines. Tourism zones and community-based ecotourism are incompatible with each other, while tourism zones and resorts owing to their shared enclavic nature are fraternal twins with one meeting the needs of the other. Clearly, there is an urgent need for NTCA to review its Guidelines on tourism in tiger reserves based on the experience of one decade of its implementation.

Moreover, the historical boundaries of protected areas and zones may not be coterminous with the current needs, both human and ecological. I would like to suggest that during wildlife management planning, far greater attention needs to be given to the delineation and assessment of the boundaries than given at the present. Many conflicts can be resolved by addressing this issue in consultation with key stakeholders.

Now, the big question for me is, okay, Corbett is successful, it has sufficient tigers, but what should be done in the future? Which path should be taken? One argument is that by understanding and developing the kind of habitat that tigers require at fine scales, it may be possible to conserve and increase tiger numbers in areas where they are less today. This can be done without having to create inviolate core zones or declare new protected areas, because that requires enormous human sacrifice, effort, and investment.

Mongabay: Based on your learnings, what advice would you want to give to other forest officers?

Rajiv Bhartari: My advice to younger forest officers would be that when they get any territorial charge under their jurisdiction, whether it’s a forest division, protected area or a tiger reserve, they must make a concerted effort to understand the area’s history, particularly the ecological and environmental history. The imprints of the past usage will be there on the ground, and these influence the management conditions for the future. This also means being sensitive to the usage of the area by local resident communities and their historical practices as many traditional uses of biodiversity and cultural practices may not have been fully recorded in official documents but may have a significant role to play in conservation.


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Banner image: Tiger in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Photo by Udayan Dasgupta.

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