Tiger safari in Corbett reserve: SC panel slams former minister, policy

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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 and blamed the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for “serious flaws” in policy that allow zoo tigers to be sourced for safaris within such reserves.

The Committee’s findings are part of the report it submitted to the Supreme Court Tuesday on alleged illegalities in tree felling and construction work in setting up a tiger safari facility, meant to display captive tigers for tourists, inside the Corbett reserve.

Faulting the NTCA for revising its 2016 guideline in 2019 to allow tigers from zoos and other safaris be brought to stock safaris inside tiger reserves, the CEC report said such practices were “bound to endanger” wild tigers since zoo animals often harbour deadly diseases.

In the report, the CEC sought an amendment or withdrawal of NTCA guidelines that allow locating tiger safaris within buffer and fringe areas of tiger reserves.

The report’s other recommendations include:

* Central Zoo Authority should stop approving zoos and safaris within tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, and along animal corridors and dispersal routes.

* 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.

* Uttarakhand government should demolish all construction done for the tiger safari inside the Corbett reserve, barring the minimum facilities required for running an animal rescue centre — an off-display facility not meant for tourists.

Concluding that “the sequence of events leads to only one conclusion that the then forest minister was the main architect of the entire matter,” the CEC report also recommended appropriate action after hearing Harak Singh Rawat.

“(Rawat) had got Kishan Chand DFO, with a dubious past, posted to Kalagarh Forest Division (of Corbett tiger reserve) without any recommendation from CSB or the Forest Department with the objective to develop (his) constituency (Kotdwar) as a tourist destination at the cost of forest and wildlife. It is most unfortunate that all the senior functionaries of… the state government preferred to remain mute spectators to the glaring irregularities,” the report said.

In December 2021, The Indian Express had reported on Uttarakhand’s construction spree worth at least Rs 157 crore — six times the approved project cost — without legal, administrative or financial sanction.

The unapproved work included 18 buildings with at least 60 rooms with attached baths at four locations around the proposed tiger safari; creation of a water body, requiring felling of trees, to attract wildlife for tourists; and, reinforcement of a forest road with provisions to widen it as a highway.

Asked at the time why the approvals were not taken, Rawat, who was then the state’s Forest Minister, had told The Indian Express: “Who gives these approvals? The government only, no? Modi-ji announced the tiger safari. The state and the Centre are working on it together. Maybe there are certain technical issues due to internal differences among some officials but ultimately tourism will benefit our people whose support is important for conservation.”