Vijay Pinjarkar,TNN
NAGPUR: As the World Environment Day is celebrated across the globe, most think of nothing more than planting trees on this day. However, Vidarbha has not only made a difference in the conservation of forests and the species within by declaring nine new wildlife sanctuaries in a little over the last three years.

The new, and some old, popular parks are already generating livelihood for hundreds of local residents. It is estimated they have a potential to generate around Rs19 crore annually (1 crore = 10 million rupees), if systematic marketing is done.

So, contrary to popular view that these protected areas (PA's) are hurdles in development, they are actually providing jobs while preserving the environment. These areas will not only act as a gene pool for tigers and other wildlife but also help fight global warming and more. Though compelled to do so, had the state government not declared these areas as protected, they could have ended up in the hands of mining lobby or been turned into timber supply zones. This would lead to loss of biodiversity and species and forced rapid landscape changes causing further environmental damage.

From November 2, 2010, to July 18, 2013, nine sanctuaries with an area of over 1,040 sq km were declared taking the state tally of PA's to over 50. The new PA's include Mansinghdeo, New Nagzira, Navegaon, New Bor, New Bustard, Umred-Karhandla, Kolamarka, Tamhini (Pune), and Koka. Apart from the new ones, there were 11 PA's already in the region. Vidarbha is gifted with tiger reserves like Pench, Tadoba and Melghat which are earning lakhs of rupees daily from tourism. This money is going to the locals for various eco-development schemes.

Few areas in the world would have so many sanctuaries and national parks so close by.

These parks are like banks with natural capital. Thanks to a spurt in ecotourism, many of these parks are turning into performing assets and providing self-employment and jobs to self-help groups, Gypsy drivers and guides. Besides, they have raised the value of adjacent farmland, making the owners richer. Many resorts are already giving jobs to locals as housekeepers, cooks, waiters etc. and more are indicated in the future.

And the party may have just begun. "If total carrying capacity of vehicles for just nine popular parks is calculated, they have a potential to generate at least Rs19 crore direct annual income for 10 months. This includes Rs3 crore towards accommodation. We are not achieving even one-fourth of that due to lack of systematic marketing," says Nishi Mukherjee, a tourism expert and former professor of development economics. Mukherjee also runs a NGO Tiger Centre in Kanha.

"We have often heard about 'people for animals', but the reverse is happening in Vidarbha. It is 'animals for people'. Unless we join the dots between conservation and development, neither will occur and the degradation of our wild assets and poverty of people will continue, leading to widespread destruction," says Mukherjee.

"Where the natural assets are non-performing, poaching and illegal activities are rampant. Where tourism has flourished, many demographic changes are seen. Youths have bikes and high-end cell phones. Jeans have replaced traditional attire. Houses in villages surrounding parks have cable connections," Mukherjee explains. In several parks around Nagpur, the rush is such it is no longer easy to get entry on weekends.

The state wildlife board member Kishor Rithe agrees that the new PA's will pay Vidarbha in long run. "They will become the 'Kenya of India' in terms of income generation and boost the economy of the region through wildlife tourism. It is a win-win equation for all stakeholders," says Rithe. Mukherjee points out Masai Mara in Kenya alone earns 12% of the GDP of the country, amounting to equivalent of Rs22,000 crore.

Rithe adds the country's most important work ecologically has taken place in Vidarbha. "Our future generations will appreciate, and world community will have to recognize, the importance of these areas which are vital for the survival of endangered species like tigers and wild buffaloes," he says.

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