India Lifts Ban on Tiger Tourism
By Shelley Seale
Driving through the wildlife sanctuary, suddenly it’s spotted: a rippling as the grass moves, a flash of orange and black fur. Breath is held as the majestic Bengal Tiger saunters out to lap a drink from the water’s edge, before continuing his hunting quest.
It’s one of the most exciting and magical wildlife experiences a traveler can have, spotting a creature like this in its natural habitat. But in India, until recently all tiger tourism was under a four-month ban. On October 16, 2012, the Indian Supreme Court lifted the ban to allow visitors to enter the formerly forbidden areas of 41 forest parks. The tourism ban reversal also came with stipulations, that state governments present plans within six months for protecting the tiger population.
The controversial ban was imposed in July 2012; the courts held that many India states were not following guidelines about phasing out tourism in the inner areas of tiger parks, and violations had occurred in a couple of parks. Half of the world’s wild tigers live in India, but the numbers of this endangered species have dropped dramatically. A century ago, there were about 30,000 wild tigers in India; by 1964 that was reduced to around 4,000.
“In a perfect world the cats would have plenty of open spaces where encounters with any humans would be few, far between and benign,” says Nola Kelsey, a zoologist and author of several books with a focus on wildlife and philanthropic travel.
“However, these days it is perfect places that are few and far between.”
In the last few decades, as poaching has become a major problem, the number of tigers has dipped to about 1,700. And it is this—the poaching problem—that most wildlife experts, tour operators and conservationists cite as the tiger’s enemy, not tourism. As of October 2012, 24 wild tigers had been killed in India by human hunters, according to the government.
A tourism Catastrophe
“The ban on tourism in national parks was a catastrophe,” says Ratna Singh, head naturalist at Banjaar Tola Tented Camp. “Apart from the fact that it would keep wildlife lovers away from visiting and enjoying the natural beauty, it has been studied and proven that tourism actually helps protect wildlife. The density of animals in general in the tourism areas is way higher than non-tourism areas. Tourism has not killed a single tiger in all these years—poachers have.”
Singh, who was the first female naturalist in India, explains that only a small portion of the national parks are open for tourism, with twice-daily safaris. The national parks are not fenced, which means anyone can walk in from any side, unchecked. The forest guards usually patrol on foot and are armed only with sticks, typically following a set track.
This means that apart from the once or max twice daily patrol, there is no other check. Poachers can easily set up camp inside such areas of the park, along with their snares and traps, easily avoiding the patrols.
“In tourism areas however, there is constant movement of vehicles and default patrolling, which has really increased the number of animals in such zones,” Singh says. “When the parks are closed for tourism in most of north India for the monsoon, that’s when the poaching activity increases even in tourism zones. So, to answer simply it is a boon for wildlife that the ban on tourism has been lifted.”
Best Lodge Naturalist
Singh knows what she’s talking about—she was one of four finalists for Best Lodge Naturalist of the Year from the Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) Wildlife Tourism Awards in 2012. The company she works for, AndBeyond, was the winner in the category of Best Wildlife Promotion Company. With their core ethos of Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People, AndBeyond is committed to supporting any initiatives aimed at protecting the planet’s natural reserves and ensuring that tourism activities are conducted in a responsible manner. All four AndBeyond jungle lodges in India have reopened following the monsoon season and lifting of the ban.
TOFT India Director Vishal Singh says that the ban on tiger tourism also badly affected legitimate businesses and hundreds of thousands of local livelihoods, directly or indirectly. It’s now time to get back to work, to ensure that revenues that flow through park fees back into conservation and communities start flowing again, that livelihoods are restored, and legitimate businesses are allowed to continue to show India’s very best natural heritage to its citizens.”
TOFT is also concerned about India’s forests, 97 percent of which are unprotected and increasingly overgrazed and exploited, becoming more devoid of wildlife.
But there is nothing in the guidelines set forth by the government which gives a road map to restocking and revitalizing the forest landscape.
“It would do for the government to focus on keeping the habitats safe, and not look for a scapegoat in tourism,” says Ratna Singh. While she agrees that unregulated tourism can affect wildlife and create problems, many of the country’s busiest tourist parks such as Bandhavgarh have the highest density of tigers in recent years.
“I would strongly recommend that the authorities look at other plaguing issues, like poaching rackets, corrupt and inefficient officials, timber and logging mafias, mining mafias etc which cause so much more harm to wildlife than just tourism.”
Singh believes that transparency and accountability by park authorities, better training of such authorities in wildlife behavior and habitat, more and better equipped forest guards, and more fencing in areas of high poaching vulnerability are all important steps that would go a long way to protecting the tiger population in India.
|Ratna Singh on patrol.|
Pressure from Human Settlements
“The laissez faire attitude has to go,” she says. “Wildlife cannot just bounce back with all the adverse factors like pressure from human settlements around the parks for wood, grazing lands and forest produce; poachers and tardy forest staff have got to be issued on a priority. Existing wilderness corridors between national parks have got to be safeguarded so animals can disperse and there is a healthy mixing of genes.”
Kelsey adds that responsibility also lies with the tourists themselves. “The tourism consumer must heighten their responsibility for their own actions and be vigilant about practicing true wildlife-friendly travel. With the power of the Internet travelers can publicly call out poorly run, faux ecotourism operator and bring about change by going after their wallets.”
If people collectively will only pay for responsible travel options, we make offering responsible tours the only option. “Yes, it takes some time to research good programs and write reviews, blog posts and the like; but if a tiger, or any species, is worth traveling half way around the world to see, isn’t it worth adding your voice to its preservation?”
The reality is that people need to generate income, and they will do this through either responsible measures or illegal hunting, whichever is more profitable. “One of the best reality-based options for projecting rare species is to make their existence profitable via well-run wildlife tourism programs,” Kelsey adds. “Governments, animal protection organizations and tourism operators need to learn to truly work together in the establishment of legitimate, scientifically-based, long term conservation programs.”
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