The virus infection of a tiger in a US zoo has cast a pall over India’s wildlife economy, as the shuttering of parks and reserves deprives livelihoods in tourism and hurt villagers who live off forest produce.
Following the news, the Union environment ministry issued an advisory to all state forest departments to contain any possible outbreak in tiger reserves, national parks and other protected areas. The move will keep wildlife destinations shut for an extended period.
Wildlife tourism in and around protected areas, which have been closed as part of the lockdown, is likely to be hit hard for a long time, snatching the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people and driving them to poverty.
What’s more, authorities at the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand have even set up quarantine wards in its ranges for tigers, elephants and sniffer dogs as a protection measure.
A pre-publication paper based on lab studies in China said that domestic cats are susceptible to the novel coronavirus when deliberately infected in the lab, and infected cats do pass on the infection to other cats. Dogs were much less susceptible even though there were a few recorded instances of pet dogs catching the infection from infected owners.
In Maharashtra, a major summer wildlife tourism destination, the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur is shuttered till April-end. Senior forest officials said the protected forests may remain closed for a longer duration, but a decision will be taken closer to when the lockdown ends.
Usually, all protected areas remain out of bounds for tourists during monsoon, but if the current situation persists, they might remain closed until winter.
A number of tourist guides and drivers will lose their livelihood for three months, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Maharashtra, Nitin Kakodkar, said, adding all field forest staff have been asked to closely monitor the protected areas.
“We hope the resort owners, wildlife foundations and private operators will take care of some of their loss,” he said. “As regards the forest employees, their wages will be protected.”
Tiger reserves typically see a spurt in visitors in April-June just before the onset of the monsoon, given the high probability of tiger sightings due to sparse vegetation cover, which results in much better visibility in the summers. Tadoba alone sees around 200,000 visitors during this period.
Centre for Wildlife Studies report ( Ahttps://cwsindia.org/emerging-trends-in-wildlife-and-tiger-tourism-in-india/) explored trends in wildlife tourism and found that it doubled in India between 2005 and 2015. Another study by TOFTigers (https://www.toftigers.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Value-of-Wildlife-Tourism-to-Ranthambhore-Sept-2018.pdf) indicates the distribution of benefits around the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. The reserve drew about 470,000 visitors in 2016-17, resulting in an entry fee collection of ₹19.57 crore, and generating about ₹217 crore in and around Sawai Madhopur in tourism-related activities, with a majority of the benefits distributed locally.
Around 3-4 million people, who live inside and around the protected areas, depend on the natural resources for their livelihoods and sociocultural practices, and will be hit by the advisory on restriction of movement by villagers inside the protected areas.
Forest rights activists have petitioned the ministry saying that while they were in complete agreement on the need to take steps to protect the rich animal diversity from covid-19, they were concerned about the impact of the advisory dated 6 April on locals, who harvest minor forest produce during this period.
Bengaluru-based wildlife biologist and CEO of Metastring Foundation Ravi Chellam finds it “very unlikely” that humans will transmit the virus to free-ranging wildlife. But for now, the impact of covid-19 is here to stay even in India’s remote forest areas.
Jaideep Hardikar is a freelance journalist based out of Nagpur.