China is generally known for the environmental degradation that it has wrought in its various regions in its quest for rapid economic growth. Reports of extensive desertification, contamination of its rivers, air pollution, acid-rains and so on frequently emanate from the country. That it has been taking firm steps to protect and nurture its natural assets – of late, with greater vigour – is, however, not so well-known. It has created numerous national parks in several batches since 1982, with the last and the seventh batch of national parks coming into existence in 2008. As on date the country has as many as 208 national parks. Massive investments are being made to modernise these parks, conserve their ecology and to provide good and sufficient facilities for inland and foreign tourists.
The Chinese are pretty thorough in whatever they do. This was amply exhibited during the last Olympics held at Beijing. In their pursuit of thoroughness they can go the whole hog as they have a couple of trillion dollars of foreign currency reserves to back them up. Besides, an authoritarian way of governance, too, helps. In so far as national parks are concerned they seem to take care of every aspect to ensure that the environment is preserved and the human impact on it is minimised, the locals are taken care of and tourism flourishes. This approach is exemplified by the Kanas National Park, the latest addition in the, seemingly, ever-growing list of Chinese national parks.
Not many would have heard of Lake Kanas, around which Kanas National Park has been created. Established in 2008, the Park is located in Xinjiang province in north-west China and is, perhaps, the world’s largest at around 10,000 square kilometres. It is a vast area much of which is inaccessible. The park is in the shadows of the Altai Mountains that spread across Central Asia, beginning in Russia, stretching through Mongolia and Kazakhstan and ending in Xinjiang. It is scenic with jagged peaks, forests of birch and fir, grasslands that bloom in summers and rivers that flow by with their crystal- clear waters. It hosts a rich wildlife, inter alia, of birds and bears and is inhabited by nomadic Mongol and Kazakh herders.
What India is currently trying to do in its national parks the Chinese have already done it. We are yet to demarcate the core and buffer areas in all our national parks, and at places, such as in Madhya Pradesh, there are even misgivings about delineating such areas for reasons not exactly scientific. The Chinese have divided Kanas National Park into three zones – the “core zone”, the “experimental zone” and the “buffer zone”. The 1700 square kilometres “core zone” is totally barred for entry of people and is inviolate, limited human activities like research or “exploratory tourism” are allowed within 7800 square kilometres of “experimental zone” and tourism is allowed only in the “buffer zone of 500 square kilometres” which has been open to tourism for some time and has already been environmentally disturbed. The “Buffer Zone” has also been the home to the natives of the area, Tuwa, an indigenous hunting and herding community of Mongol stock, numbering less than 2000.
More importantly, the administration has already determined the carrying-capacity of tourists in the park, according to which the buffer could support a million tourists in a year without in anyway damaging the park’s environment. The number of tourists has already touched around 700,000. The administration, not as lax as in India, is not going to allow the number of tourists to go beyond the one million mark. Tourism is important as, indeed, it is for every administration. Although, the Chinese people are now much richer than what they were a couple of decades ago and have become peripatetic yet there is no show of indulgence towards them. Obviously, interests of conservation of the park have been retained as of prime importance.
The administration has, at great cost, even relocated 30 kilometres away a number of hotels that had come up on the shores of Lake Kanas before the area was designated as a national park. Tourism close to wetlands always is harmful. No wonder the lake has been rendered free from their deleterious effects. At the new site of hotels also preservation of the environment was given its due importance. Attempts have been made to keep it clean and green by making provision for treating sewage and arranging for proper disposal of the garbage that is generated.
Again, with a view to reducing the human impact on the ecology of the park, the Chinese administration is moving the Tuwa from their scattered hamlets in the mountains to a central Tuwa village. They are being made to give up their traditional way of life for the sake of environmental conservation and lending a helping hand to promote tourism. They will no longer be hunters and herders and, instead, will earn their keep by taking active part in the tourism trade. Not only will they be taking tourists on horse-riding expeditions, they will and are also being encouraged to open shops and restaurants. They are also being encouraged to extend their homes in order to accommodate tourists to provide the visitors with an ethnic experience. In fact, the engagement of Tuwas in the tourist trade of the park has already commenced. The provincial tourism organisation engages some of them as drivers, cleaners, guards, etc.
The various measures taken by the administration has already started paying dividends. Swans, which had disappeared from the Kanas Lake, have now returned. Likewise, other rare animals have also returned to the buffer zone. Although it is generally admitted that some key species are decreasing due to the degradation of the habitat, yet the area has begun to get repopulated by, among others, brown bear, snow leopards, red deer, many species of birds.
Kanas National Park holds out a very good example to the Indian authorities for management of national parks and other protected areas. Although India has a far longer history of conservation of its ecologically sensitive natural sites, yet it has not been able to prevent their degradation that has occurred over time. Unfortunately, In India there are certain holy cows which it refuses to get rid of. Tourism is one. Howsoever damaging it is the authorities, leave alone banning it (like China), wouldn’t even control it. Whether it is a so-called holy river, a Himalayan glacial area of fragile eco-systems, an important wetland – like the one in Bhopal – or a tiger-reserve, tourism of the most malefic kind is winked at, even promoted, for the sake of generating revenues. Worse, the guardians of the Indian forests and wildlife fight court-battles to continue uncontrolled tourism in core areas of tiger reserves which the national government seeks to keep free from human interference. More importantly, despite availability of recommendations of experts in regard to carrying-capacities of tourists in the national parks, these are hardly ever acted upon. Then again, hotels and resorts may be crowding around the reserves, even choking the wildlife migratory corridors (like in the Corbett Tiger Reserve), yet none would ever try and relocate them away from these protected enclaves. It is the powerful vested interests that call the shots. As regards the forest-dwellers, steps are taken only to relocate them and that too far away from their native surroundings – never ever trying to integrate them into the efforts to conserve the parks, make use of their innate knowledge of the local biodiversity or to take their assistance in providing to tourists a different experience.
It is time the country changed its attitudes towards conservation of its natural assets. Taking a leaf out of China’s experience it needs to improve governance within the national parks, which will be good for our natural assets – or whatever is left of them – as also for the country.
(The piece was inspired by a feature in the May 2009 issue of Geographic magazine, the monthly periodical of the Royal Geographic Society)