Tiger — not burning bright

Neeta Lal
Filed on August 21, 2012
Tiger — not burning bright

Concerned that the Royal Bengal tiger is ‘on the verge of extinction’ in India, the Supreme Court recently slapped a ban on tourism in the core (critical) areas of the country’s tiger reserves allowing tourists access only up to the “buffer” or fringe areas.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (as amended in 2006) defines core/critical wildlife habitats as such areas that need to be “kept inviolate for tiger conservation without affecting the rights of scheduled tribes or forest dwellers”. A bulk of poaching cases this year has been reported from buffer areas of tiger reserves across the country, leaving conservationists and forest officials wondering about the efficacy of the ban on tourism in the big cat’s core habitats.

Tiger — not burning bright (/assets/oldimages/tiger-2108.jpg)The contentious ban has also roiled the travel trade and conservationists as well as animal lovers. These segments are protesting that it isn’t tourism, but grazing, neglect and the lax implementation of protective laws in ecologically fragile areas that are contributing to dwindling tiger numbers. The biggest spoiler, point out ecologists, is poaching. This scourge has singularly eroded the country’s precious flora and fauna that form the lynchpin of the country’s tourism economy.

While the imperative of protecting the big cat can’t be overemphasised — more so considering their number has plummeted spectacularly from 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century to a mere 1,700 now — is a draconian clampdown the panacea for protecting the country’s magnificent national animal?

India hosts more than half of the world’s estimated 3,200 tigers, with most of them living in wildlife reserves set up since the 1970s. Currently, there are 41 tiger reserves across the country. The most visited among them — Corbett, Kanha, Periyar, Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh — attract 150,000-200,000 visitors each every year.

Hundreds of hotels and shops also operate in the innards of these beautiful tiger reserves to cater to wildlife-watching tourists. Tour operators point out that the highest densities of tigers can be found today in the most heavily-visited tiger reserves.

Rather than disallowing wildlife tourism, it would be far better to regulate such commerce and tone down its aggressiveness in environmentally sensitive forest zones. Imposing a complete ban is tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater, especially because there is no scientific evidence to support a direct correlation between plunging tiger numbers and augmented wildlife tourism.

As the best tiger sightings are in the core areas, a ban will only diminish tourism revenue. This will have a domino effect on the local economies that depend on this trade for sustenance. In fact the ban on hotels in the core areas of the tiger reserves has already thrown the plans of hundreds of tourists who had booked rooms to stay in the forest, into a disarray.

Ecologists argue that rather than preventing people from getting into sensitive zones inside reserves, they ought to be made stakeholders in tiger protection initiatives. By sensitizing people on a plethora of issues—from keeping forests clean to be on the lookout for injured big cats and poachers in tiger habitats—they could become what renowned animal rights activist Belinda Wright says are “the eyes and ears” of the forests.

Regulated presence of tourists will also disincentivise poaching. Stopping tourism, on the other hand, will spur illegal wildlife trafficking as the absence of tourists will embolden traffickers. In other words, what is needed is not a people- and commerce-unfriendly approach, but one that balances sensible conservation measures with the thrill of wildlife tourism.

It has been pointed out that the answer to the perennial problem of wildlife extinction lies in the concept of wildlife tourism itself. Such activity benefits tiger conservation efforts by providing these majestic quadrupeds protection through the passive monitoring and vigil of tourists.

According to surveys, commercially viable national parks breed the maximum numbers of tigers left in India. Tourism and commercial activity do marginally impact the health of a sanctuary, but that is part and parcel of any such business venture. On the other hand, it also brings in government and international funding to protect the endangered. As tourism earnings from these parks will now be zilch, the Indian government will be under additional pressure to provide funds to these reserves for conservation.

In other words, the ill-thought ban may thwart rather than buttress tiger conservation efforts. At a time when interest in nature tourism is at an all-time high, a knee jerk ban will do nothing but dim the luminescence of the tiger’s fearful symmetry.

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