Tigers are among the most charismatic and majestic animals on earth. The world’s largest cat, they live across a wide range of habitats, from mountains to coastal wetlands. The majority of remaining tigers currently live in India among a number of national parks and tiger reserves. Tiger tourism has become a hot button issue in India, with the country’s recent Supreme Court decision to end a moratorium on tourism in these reserves.
Many wildlife conservationists and award-winning ecotourism operators believe that tourism can be beneficial to the Panthera tigris. The presence of tourists can help to deter poachers from forests where tigers live. Respected tour operators such as Wildland Adventures put some of their profits towards conservation and social programs such as the 10,000 Tigers program. Sanjay Gubbi, Tiger Program Coordinator for conservation organization Panthera has said that, “India’s wildlife tourism industry benefits communities by stimulating local economies and providing employment.” Tiger tourism can also inspire travelers to support conservation efforts though at the moment, few operators actively encourage their clients to become involved as donors or volunteers.
The case that brought this issue to the courts was submitted by Ajay Dubey, a conservationist who works with the organization Prayatna. Dubey thinks that tiger tourism has been a threat to the big cats in India. Even those conservationists that in general support tiger tourism acknowledge that management needs to be improved. Panthera’s Mr. Gubbi notes that many tourism operations practice “unethical safari practices.” In some reserves, lodges have been built in key habitat and large numbers of jeeps crowding the tigers causes stress on the animals. This lawsuit has divided many people on both sides of the argument, whether the final ruling, which came out in October, hopefully will improve the situation.
One point that everyone agrees to is that tigers face a dire situation. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild across Asia, of which about 1,700 live in India. Those numbers represent a drop of more than 90 percent over the past century, the reason they are currently listed as endangered by the IUCN’s Red List. The main reason for this drop however, is poaching of their skins and body parts, which can bring thousands of dollars each on the black market.
I have spent most of the past decade working on improving how tourism benefits the efforts to protect endangered sea turtles. While these two animals and their conservation methods are very different, many of the same principles apply. For tourism to work, it must be done in a way that minimizes damage to key habitat, prevents unnecessary stress on the animals, and generates concrete benefits to both conservation programs and nearby communities.
The recent ruling by the Indian Supreme Court on Prayatna’s lawsuit has the potential to improve how tiger tourism in India is managed. Unfortunately, many people were disappointed in the lack of strong regulations to protect tigers in the decision. Julian Matthews of Travel Operators for Tigers stated that, “Sadly there is nothing in these guidelines that gives anyone… a legal ‘road map’ as to how they (the forests) can be restored.” The primary responsibility for ending the construction of infrastructure is now in the hands of the state governments, which have been given six months to develop new tourism and conservation guidelines.
Tour operators have a strong responsibility to ensure their tours benefit tigers and local communities and to advocate not only for regulations that will allow their businesses to grow but also to make compromises that keep the best interests of the tigers in mind. If real changes aren’t made to both improve tourism management and reduce poaching, tourism businesses and local communities will suffer alongside these charismatic animals.Share This: