Pakhro Tiger Safari project

Supreme Court: In a petition alleging illegal construction of bridges and walls within the Tiger Breeding Habitat of Corbett Tiger Reserve without the approval from the Competent Authority, the Three Judge Bench of BR Gavai*, Prashant Kumar Mishra and Sandeep Mehta,JJ. gave the following directions:

  • The Safaris which are already existing and the one under construction at Pakhro will not be disturbed. However, insofar as the Safari at ‘Pakhro’ is concerned, the State of Uttarakhand will relocate or establish a rescue centre in the vicinity of the ‘Tiger Safari’.
  • The MoEFCC will appoint a committee consisting of the following: (i) a representative of the NTCA; (ii) a representative of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII); (iii) a representative of the CEC; and (iv) an officer of the MoEFCC not below the rank of Joint Secretary as its Member Secretary.
  • The said Committee will recommend the measures for restoration of the damages, in the local in situ environment to its original state before the damage was caused; assess the environmental damage caused in the Corbett Tiger Reserve and quantify the costs for restoration; identify the persons/officials responsible for such a damage.
  • The Committee, inter alia, will consider and recommend as to whether Tiger Safaris shall be permitted in the buffer area or fringe area, and if such Safaris can be permitted, then what should be the guidelines for establishing such Safaris.
  • CBI was directed to effectively investigate the matter as directed by the Uttaranchal High Court
  • The State Government was directed to complete the disciplinary proceedings against the delinquent officers as expeditiously as possible and in any case, within a period of six months from the date of this judgment.
  • It also asked the Committee to give its preliminary report within three months from the date of this judgment.

Consideration as to whether Tiger Safaris and Zoos are on the same footing or not

The Court said that in spite of such an importance given to the tiger and many statutory provisions enacted for the conservation and protection of the tiger, the present case depicts a sorry state of affairs as to how human greed has led to devastating one of the most celebrated abodes of tigers i.e. the Corbett Tiger Reserve.

After taking note of the definition of ‘zoo’ in Section 2(39) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (‘WLP Act’), the Court said that though a ‘zoo’ as contemplated under Chapter IVA of the WLP Act also deals with conservation, it emphasizes on ex situ conservation.

It further noted that Proviso to Section 33(a) of the WLP Act specifically prohibits any construction of tourist lodges, including Government lodges for commercial purposes, hotels, zoos and safari parks inside a sanctuary except with the prior approval of the National Board. Thus, it was held that a safari cannot be constructed within the said area unless there is prior approval of the National Board.

Concerning whether a ‘Tiger Safari’ would be permissible in the buffer zone or not, the Court noted the definition of ‘safari’ in the ‘Guidelines for Safari Parks which are working either as Zoos or as Extension to Zoos, 1996’, and said that it can be seen from the title of the said Guidelines itself that the same would be applicable only insofar as safari parks which are working either as zoos or as an extension to zoos. The ‘Tiger Safaris’ which are conceptualized by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (‘NTCA’) are not for the parks which are working either as zoos or as an extension to zoos.

The Court said that clause (c) of Section 38-O of the WLP Act requires the NTCA to lay down normative standards for tourism activities and guidelines for project tiger from time to time for tiger conservation in the buffer and core area of tiger reserves and ensure their due compliance.

Further, it noted that Section 38-XA of the WLP Act specifically provides that the provisions contained in the said Chapter shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of, the provisions relating to sanctuaries and National Parks. Also, the legislature has put ‘Tiger Reserve’ on a higher pedestal than the sanctuaries and the National Parks

Thus, it stated that even in buffer or peripheral areas, though a lesser degree of habitat protection than the core area is to be provided, however, the provisions are required to be made to ensure the integrity of the critical tiger habitat with adequate dispersal for tiger species. Efforts must be made to promote co-existence between wildlife and human activity with due recognition of livelihood, developmental, social and cultural rights.

Further, it said that while preparing a Tiger Conservation Plan (‘TCP’), the State Government is required to ensure that the agricultural, livelihood, developmental, and other interests of the people living in tiger bearing forests or a tiger reserve are taken care of.

The Court said that establishment of such ‘safaris’ in the buffer zone would generate employment for the local people and promote co-existence between wildlife and human activity. However, it viewed that such a ‘safari’ can be established only for the purposes specified in clause 9 of the 2016 Guidelines and not as per the 2019 Guidelines.

Whether establishment of a ‘Tiger Safari’ at Pakhrau is legal or not.

The Court noted that the TCP provided for developing a Rescue Centre-cum-Tiger Safari to provide an easy option for the rescue and rehabilitation of the injured and/or infirm or problem tigers and also to provide an opportunity for visitors to see tigers up close and in a near-natural controlled environment

The Court said that the location of the ‘Tiger Safari’ has not been identified as per clause 10 of the 2016 Guidelines which requires recommendations of the Committee comprising of the members from (i) NTCA, (ii) CZA, (iii) Forest Department of concerned State, (iv) an experienced tiger biologist/scientist/conservationist, and (v) a representative, nominated by the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State concerned

The Bench refused to interfere with the decision to establish the ‘Tiger Safari’ at Pakhro, since there are approvals from the NTCA and the Central Zoo Authority (‘CZA’) and since the proposal for the establishment of ‘Tiger Safari’ was submitted by the State Forest Department and the Chief Wildlife Warden was also associated with identification of the location, though technically there will be non-compliance with the requirement of clause 10 of the 2016 Guidelines; and since most of the authorities are ad idem.

Thus, the Bench approved the establishment of the ‘Tiger Safari’ at Pakhro. However, it mentioned that when the TCP of 2015 itself provided for the establishment of a Rescue Centre-cum-Tiger Safari at a nearby place, there appears to be no logic for establishing a rescue centre at another place. Therefore, the Court directed the Uttarakhand Government to relocate the rescue centre nearby the ‘Tiger Safari’.

(c) Illegal construction and felling of trees

The Court said many illegal construction activities have been carried out. Such constructions cannot be completed overnight. Though an action has been taken for certain Forest Department officers, many others must have been involved in the commission of the said irregularities.

The Court remarked that the former Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat and Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Kishan Chandand had completely forgotten about the ‘Public Trust’ doctrine.

The Bench said that both were in blatant disregard of the law and for commercial purposes, indulged in the illicit felling of trees on a mass-scale to construct buildings on the pretext of promotion of tourism. This is a classic case that shows how the politicians and the bureaucrats have thrown the public trust doctrine in the dustbin.

The Court noted that the DFO was found to have been involved in serious irregularities at his earlier postings, and even though the Authorities had recommended not to post the said officer at any sensitive post, the then Forest Minister inserted his name in the proposal relating to transfer and postings at a sensitive post. Thus, this is a case that shows how a nexus between a Politician and a Forest Officer has resulted in causing heavy damage to the environment for some political and commercial gain.

The Court said that the principle of restoration of damaged ecosystem would require the States to promote the recovery of threatened species and viewed that the States would be required to take steps for the identification and effective implementation of active restoration measures that are localized to the ecosystem that was damaged.

Further, it viewed that the State cannot run away from its responsibilities to restore the damage done to the forest. The State, apart from preventing such acts in the future, should take immediate steps for restoration of the damage already done; undertake an exercise for determining the valuation of the damage done and recover it from the persons found responsible for causing such a damage.

The Court requested Chandra Prakash Goyal, former Director General of Forest, Anup Malik, IFS, PCCF (HoFF), Uttarakhand, and Dr. Samir Sinha, IFS, PCCF (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden, Uttarakhand to give their suggestion for more effective management and protection of the “Tiger Reserves” in India.

[In re: T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad, 2024 SCC OnLine SC 243, decided on 06-03-2024]

*Judgment Authored by: Justice BR Gavai

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