Creating inviolate spaces to help the tiger recover from perilous decline is a recognised goal of conservation policy today. Considering that the habitat of the charismatic cat has shrunk drastically to about one per cent of legally protected land, the Supreme Court order banning tourism in core forest areas is welcome, as it gives the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) pause for thought. The prospect of watching tigers in the wild brings thousands of visitors to nature reserves and generates massive revenues. Such tourists, the majority of them from within the country, are potential ambassadors for conservation. What is not so obvious is the complex interaction involving multiple stakeholders — the park management, the communities living in and around forests and the tourists. Studies conducted between 2002 and 2008, when many new tourist facilities were built, show distinct trends. Notable among these is the alienation of many local residents from touristic activity due to poor income transfers, and loss of tourist interest when tiger numbers dwindle. These important lessons make it imperative for the MoEF, the State governments and the industry to review their approach to tiger tourism. Measures such as identifying viable cores in each reserve, reducing human pressure on better-preserved forests, and creating new buffer lands for tigers to move into, hold the key to healthy cat densities.

Tourism that is primarily dependent on tigers should naturally be anxious about preserving core forests — which hold source populations of the cat. It should be borne in mind that with rising affluence, the number of tourists arriving at sanctuaries and natural parks is on the increase, and sustaining this growth needs innovative strategies. Active protection of buffer forests and even newly-added farm land, and fostering of greater densities of deer, wild pig, bison and other prey will lead to a rise in tiger numbers — and increased opportunities for viewing. Such an approach is essential to absorb more visitors. The experience in high-profile tiger havens such as Nagarahole, Kanha and Ranthambhore shows that support of local residents is vital to successful wildlife tourism. But generally speaking, the number of local people employed and earnings shared by tourism ventures are both low, generating resentment among the communities. The record is better in neighbouring Nepal. Now that the Supreme Court has taken a view, the roadmap for conservation-friendly tourism is clear: the laggard States — Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra — must notify the buffer areas, and the MoEF must draw up a good plan for sustainable tourism in the peripheral forests and reforested contiguous lands.

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