Madhya Pradesh has been a haven for nature, wildlife, biodiversity and hence many Vanvasi and cultural civilisations. With more than 29 per cent of its land covered by forests and the revered river Narmada running through its length, this heartland of India even today is home to some of the rarest and most beautiful species of butterflies, insects, moths, spiders and insects. It is these beautiful creations of nature that are the latest means of minting money by westerners who come to the state posing as tourists and research students. The threat is so high that their network now includes several resort owners who have high reputation, influence and penetration at the highest levels of governance in the state. The resort-owners charge high revenue from them, and in return buy them special privileges by influencing the forest officials. These favours have no limits. They include allowing the tourists from selected resorts to walk the forest on foot with almost no security or monitoring, and allowing them to stay in the forest areas overnight where no one else except those on official work are allowed.
In recent times, there have been several incidents of biodiversity smugglers caught red-handed by authorities in different parts of India. A group of French students was arrested in July last year, carrying ultraviolet lamps and bed sheets, walking in the forest. They would simply light the ultraviolet lamps, and wait for the moths and insects to collect on the bed sheets before winding them up and pushing them in small plastic sample sheets and plastic jars. In August 2008, two Czech nationals, Peter Svecha and Emil Kucera, were arrested red-handed by the West Bengal authorities for stealing rare insects near Darjeeling’s Singalila National Park. Both were convicted by the court. While Svecha was fined rupees twenty thousand, Kucera was slammed a four-year imprisonment. These cases, however, are only a tip of the iceberg. India is one of the world’s 12 top countries in rich biodiversity, hosting some of the rarest species on earth that include an approximate 45,000 plant and 89,000 animal species. Every year hundreds of eco-pirates raid our country to rob its wealth of nature. They are assisted by greedy resort owners and by an organised network of government officials who are ready to serve their interests for return favours. Rules are bent for facilitating the theft, and weaknesses in the Forest Acts exploited to facilitate their expeditions. The catchers pay high and unbelievable revenues in the black market in the west. The giant poisonous Indian spider the ‘Indian tarantual’ fetches more than $1000 (Rs.47,000). The ‘Kesar-e-Hind’ butterfly can fetch more than $1500 (Rs.70,000). The list is endless and the prices unbelievable.
The Satpura forests are the most diverse and elaborate biodiversity area in central India. Expanding more than 4000 square kilometres, the Satpura Biodiversity Reserve is spread around the Satpura Tiger Reserve, that is home to hundreds of such rare species. It is this untouched haven of nature that is the latest victim of the organised crime of biodiversity smuggling. Recently, investments worth crores of rupees have been made here by a resort that has been advocating ‘nature walks’ in the jungle in the name of bringing foreigners closer to the forest. Nature walk was a concept developed in National Parks to allow tourists to walk on foot around for small distances in relatively low forest density areas near rest houses etc. However, in Satpura Tiger Reserve, this norm is being twisted by the present Director NS Dungriyal to allow foreign tourists not just inside the forest on foot, but also to allow them to walk through the most dense and dangerous core areas extending many kilometres into the tiger breeding territory. With Panna Tiger Reserve losing all its tigers to the greed of the resort owners, Satpura looks poised to be the next on the list for being plundered out of its rich wealth of nature.
What is most surprising is the audacity of the resort owners and their confidence in breaking the law of the land. The resort’s website proudly announces it as ‘the only place in India where you can explore the tiger on foot’. It is in complete violation of the law for tiger reserves where a tourist is not even allowed to step down from his vehicle in the core or breeding areas of the forest. The tariffs of this resort are at least 10 times higher than the other resorts in the area and are clearly designed to meet the budgets of ‘special foreign guests’ who get a ‘no laws hold’ and a ‘no questions asked’ welcome into the tiger reserve because of the benefits showered on the forest department and its authorities by the resort owners. (The resort has recently gifted the Eco Tourism Cooperative Committee, which is run by the forest department workers, a gift of two free four wheel drive Maruti Gypsies worth more than Rs.10,00,000). There are already sufficient four wheel vehicles in the reserve to carry out eco tourism. For those who are opposed to motor safaris, and for those who wish to carry out deeper explorations inside the forest away from the roads, elephants with trained Mahavats are present. The need for a foot walk for a selected group of tourists, kilometres long into the tiger breeding areas is therefore not just surprising but also raises suspicions about the real intentions behind them. What makes these ‘nature walks’ more dangerous is the fact that in a dense forest, it is easy to control and monitor tourists on vehicles and elephants, but monitoring each tourist walking on a trail of many kilometres, otherwise used only by wild animals is next to impossible, even for the two guides who accompany them and who are hired and are not employees of the forest department.
However, the greatest audacity of the forest department is yet to come. A well furnished rest house made of concrete is being constructed and is near completion in the famous ‘Madhai Meadows’ of the reserve where the wild life sighting and activity is maximum. This is in complete violation of the Supreme Court order of 1995 banning any kind of concrete construction in the core areas of any protected area, and is being constructed to facilitate the night stay and exploration of the foreign tourists from the resort.
Another lethal angle of this new threat to the Satpura forests is the fact that they are the richest forests in terms of heritage. The Satpuras hold within them hundreds of ancient rock paintings, cave shelters, statues and temples that are yet being researched upon. It was a cultural war against the British that wiped off this civilisation in the war of Independence in 1857. Each of these creations is worth millions in the international market and is today being left open to similar plunderers of the west by a money making network that eyes the opportunity and the forests as ‘essentially high revenue tourism’, and not as a heritage meant to be preserved for the Vanvasis who actually own it.
The Satpuras are once again under invasion from the west, and like the 1857 war, the invaders are again being assisted by insiders. The nexus has already established itself deep and strong. It is therefore very important for the state government to immediately act banning all foot walking of tourists in the forests except for those on official work or sanctioned projects. It is equally important to act against the forest officers who have abused the laws in order to bent and misuse them beyond their original motives into favours for biodiversity pirates.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])