Tourism in reserves is not the threat it is made out to be for the world’s most admired animal. In fact, it could serve as a conservation strategy

The recent ban by the Supreme Court on tourism in core areas of tiger reserves in India raises some fundamental questions:

1. Is tourism, however intense, the real culprit behind the killings of tigers and their seemingly low breeding capacity?

2. If after four decades of implementing the Wildlife (Protection) Act, and efforts by Project Tiger and the National Tiger Conservation Authority, tigers are near extinction today, can banning reserve tourism reverse the situation?

3. Can people be denied the right to visit national parks to watch the most admired animal in the world?

Let’s look at the facts on the ground:

1. In most ‘tourism areas’ of reserves, tigers are breeding so well that their numbers are causing problems to reserve managers! The recent example is Tadoba Tiger Reserve and the more celebrated ones are Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh. In these reserves, dispersing tigers are not able to find space or ‘territories’ and are therefore running into conflict with villagers living on the edges of these parks. Nobody is claiming that tourism is increasing the fecundity of tigers, but there is some evidence to show that it is not destroying it.

2. Tourism has given communities living on the fringes of tiger reserves thousands of jobs, which no other industry or the government has.

3. Tiger tourism, as it is described, takes place in not more than 10 of the 41 reserves in the country, so to blame it for the dwindling tiger population is a bit extreme.

It is a fact that resorts outside some of the tiger reserves are causing major problems such as blocking wildlife corridors and causing pollution of all kinds. A case in point is the situation outside the Corbett Tiger Reserve, where about 150 resorts have mushroomed in the past 10 years. This is the ugly side of the so-called tiger tourism, and it definitely needs to be regulated. The scenario inside the reserves, though, is not as terrible as is made out to be.

In the past five to seven years, reserves have begun to regulate the numbers of vehicles and tourists entering the parks; for example, Corbett, Ranthambore and all reserves in Madhya Pradesh have strict limits on the number of vehicles and also have measures such as ‘routes’, and zones to reduce the pressure of vehicles on animal sightings.

I would like to discuss in some detail the Kabini area of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve as a case study on the positive aspects of tiger tourism. Less than 10 per cent of the reserve is used for tourism, and in these 40 sq km the Karnataka government has handed over the responsibility of conducting safari operations to Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR), a State-owned corporation.

This model has been working successfully for almost a year. The number of safari vehicles is limited according to a carrying capacity fixed by the Forest Department at a maximum of 12 every trip. Safaris are conducted twice a day for three hours each.

Tourists are accompanied by trained naturalists who not only give an interpretative experience of the jungle but also enforce the rules and regulations of the park. There is a ‘route system’ in place, by which every vehicle has to follow a previously allotted route, which further reduces the impact of vehicles on animals. There is a very strong emphasis on converting visitors into ambassadors of conservation, which is the ultimate aim of ecotourism. It is these ‘enlightened’ citizens who form a strong lobby for conservation and specifically for saving tigers in our country.

JLR is the oldest ecotourism company in India and has been in operation in Kabini for almost 30 years. The density of tigers in Nagarahole has only improved in these three decades, and it is now among the highest in the country — about one tiger for every 10 sq km!

Another aspect of the Kabini story that needs to be appreciated is the employment of locals in the six resorts in the area and the resultant economic benefits. More than 350 locals are employed in these resorts and they take home a total salary of Rs.40 lakh every month. Further, local purchases amount to about Rs.10 lakh every month. So about Rs.50 lakh is pumped into the local economy every month. What would happen to these locals if tourism is to be completely banned in Kabini?

There is no other employment in these areas. Unemployment may create indirect or even direct pressure on the tigers through habitat disturbing activities, including aiding poachers. It should be mentioned here that proposed tourism in the ‘buffer zones’ is not a feasible idea, as visitors cannot hope to see much wildlife in these areas. It will take a very long time for such areas to be inhabited by wildlife.

The other issue the Supreme Court ban throws up is that ‘critical tiger habitats’ or core areas need to be ‘inviolate’ of all human presence. Tourism that involves a temporary presence of visitors cannot be treated as ‘violating’ the core area. If it is, how are we to stop the thousands of pilgrims visitingtemples in reserves such as Ranthambore, Sariska, and B.R. Hills? And what about the highways that cut through reserves such as Bandipur and Nagarahole?

The Supreme Court will give a final ruling on August 22. Meanwhile its order for a temporary ban is an opportunity for all stakeholders to clean up their act. There are ways by which the court can help. For instance, it should pass strong strictures against illegal construction of resorts. It should see that existing guidelines like compulsory employment of locals are implemented. Instead of an extreme judgement that will ban tourism in tiger reserves completely, let us hope for a more balanced approach from the court in its final order. There are plenty of international examples to show that regulated tourism can serve as a valuable conservation tool. Why not in India?

(Champati Sarath is a freelance ecotourism consultant who is associated with Jungle Lodges and Resorts. He is a founder-member of the Ecotourism Society of India.)

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