We visited the Nawegaon Nagzira Tiger Reserve in the Gondia-Bhandara district, which falls in the north-eastern side of Maharashtra. We chose to stay in a quaint and cozy homestay.
Of the eight trips we took to the jungle, this was the first time I noticed a tourism property situated right in the heart of a village. We drove down a kachcha road, two to three feet wide, to reach the homestay.
You could easily tell that the village was a flourishing one, as it had a huge, adjoining lake and was surrounded by wheat fields. It comprised of barely 30-40 huts, a bus stop, a kirana shop and many, young families.
At first, I thought it was due to reverse migration that the youngsters were flocking back to the village, but later, after my conversation with the staff there, I came to know the story was a little different.
The handful of the families living there are not only dependent on agriculture, but also on the tourism industry around the Chorkhamhara gate of the tiger reserve.
The men of the family either own a Maruti gypsy and are employed as drivers at the various gates of the tiger reserve, or are certified guides who accompany each gypsy to impart knowledge to the tourists.
Their female counterparts work at the hotels and homestays as chefs, housekeeping staff etc.
Such places contribute to conservation by securing sustainable livelihoods for the local people. But, the question remains: is there enough emphasis to ensure sharing of benefits and sustainable dependence on forest resources?
With bank loans, budget category accommodations can be arranged by the locals. It was observed in our study that a majority of the domestic tourists were from the budget category.
The policy-makers must make an effort to motivate more number of locals to participate in ecotourism-related activities through a bottom-up design approach, as well as vocational and skill development activities.
The authorities in the tiger reserve have been able to create employment opportunities for the locals; and partially improve their standard of living.
But, a lot more needs to be done in terms of social empowerment through community participation, community cohesion, infrastructure development and cultural awareness.