From Sher Kahn to Tigger, do we love Tigers too much? The Indian Government recently suggested that tigers are being ‘loved to death’ by tourists and that phasing out of tourism is necessary in order to save the big cats from imminent extinction. The decision has ignited fierce rows and attracted divided opinions between conservationists.
Surveys carried out by The Wildlife Institute of India, revealed that tiger populations fell by up to 60% between 2002 and 2008; over 700 cats disappeared in six years. 21 tiger are already thought to have died in 2010 and it is estimated that around 1400 remain in the wild today.
The need for protection has been formally recognised in India since 1970, when hunting was banned. The Wildlife protection act followed in 1972 and lead to the establishment of ‘Project Tiger’. Renamed ‘the National Tiger Conservation Authority’ in 2006, the aim is to create ‘safe havens’, in which tigers can live undisturbed. According to the authority, tiger populations have increased significantly since its launch and it has “…put the tiger on an assured course of recovery”.
But tourism is unregulated in India’s reserves and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands visit each year. Hotels have been blamed for blocking pathways between tiger territories and, to ensure that tourists get what they’re paying for, luxury lodges have been built in core areas to maximise the chances of a sighting. In India’s oldest National Park, named after hunter turned conservationist Jim Corbett, their most recent guesthouses are described as being in ‘excellent tiger territory’.
Alongside infrastructure, modern practices in wildlife tracking are also thought to be a major threat. Where reserves use radio telemetry systems, visitors can be quickly alerted to a sighting. Travelling on elephant back, in jeeps or 20 seater vehicles, they are likely to disrupt grasslands on their cross-country journeys, causing wider ecological damage. One tourism website claims that, in Ranthambore National Park, tigers are ‘…oblivious of jeep loads of tourists’.
The right decision?
No-one is blind to the fact that many other factors threaten the species. Historically, Tiger hunting was a prestigious sport, one practiced by royals from India to England. In China, from grinding the tail as a cancer cure, to rubbing tiger brain on your body to treat laziness, tiger has been used in traditional medicine for centuries and the demand is still high. Today, hunting is illegal and international trade in tiger parts is banned but markets throughout China continue to sell without shame. With a whole cat fetching around $50,000, the Environmental Investigation Agency says that tiger trade is thriving throughout the world, including in the USA and Europe.
Whilst it is widely accepted that something needs to be done, the extent to which tourism should be blamed is contested; The Times of India state that the fall in tiger populations has “little to do with tourists” and Paul Goldstein, tiger campaigner and tour guide with holiday company ‘Exodus’, refers to the curb on tourism as “damaging, misleading and incorrect”, advocating the role of tourism as vital in protecting habitats. There are incidences where tourists have acted as environmental stewards, alerting authorities to malpractice and mismanagement. With this in mind, could banning tourism actually hasten the decline? Guardian ‘green columnist’ Kevin Rushby, suggests that in removing tourists tigers can be ‘…exterminated in peace and quiet’.
But perhaps we are over-reacting. The decision has not been to enforce a total ban on tiger-tourism throughout India. Justin Francis of the agency ‘Responsible Travel’ clarifies Ramesh’s tourism curb, accepting it as a necessary but short term measure. It should be remembered that there are vast differences between tourism practices and where some may serve to protect the environment, other forms can be severely damaging. Responsible tour operators and conservation projects can be hugely beneficial in promoting environmental protection but without strict management and tighter control, we cannot guarantee that all operators follow such good practice.
Surely then, the solution is easy; Tourism needs to change, not to vanish. By banning unsustainable and damaging practices, tiger populations can be revived? Justin Francis highlights that this is by no means a new approach but one that has been widely promoted for decades. The problem is that it is not a system that the Government has been able to manage so far. Achieving sustainable tourism should be a long term goal but is not one that can be realised overnight. Hence, Francis recognises the Government’s decision to take more drastic and immediate action; “We don’t have the luxury of time to try to reorganise tourism – tigers may be extinct within five years.”
Whether it be through tourism, population increase, hunting or Chinese medicine, human beings are the tiger’s main predator but they are also their guardians. Despite the doom and gloom, India still holds the best chance for saving tigers in the wild. Whilst elsewhere, in Indonesia and the Middle East, tigers are long gone, India harbours the world’s biggest concentration.
Ideally, it seems that the Government would like to develop guidelines where eco-tourism can operate sustainably, using specific schemes for India’s unique reserves. While we wait patiently for plans to emerge, we are urged to remember that reserves are first and foremost for protecting tigers and whether it should be considered alongside or as a secondary outcome, tourism should never take precedence.
Photo from projo.com