In a controversial move made by the Indian Supreme Court in July, tourism was banned in over 40 core zones of central government run tiger reserves. It is still possible to visit the fringes of these reserves to try and see the elusive creature, but anyone caught venturing into the reserves could face court proceedings and hefty fines.
The number of tigers in India has dropped from 100,000 to just 3,000 in the last century. The ban was put in place after a case was filed by Ajay Dube who complained that the development of tourist infrastructure in core areas of the reserves was threatening the tiger population. He argued that habitats should be protected from human activity, including the building of hotels and resorts which support the booming tourism industry.
As a result, thousands of tourists’ plans have been thrown up in the air, with many facing potential disappointment. This has angered conservations who believe the tourism industry has helped protect the tiger population, not damaged it. In fact, a ban on tiger tourism could put the animals at an even greater risk.
India is home to over half of the world’s population, and most of these live in reserves. Tourism is essential not only for the survival of the tiger, but the villages surrounding the reserves and the locals who are employed in the industry. Evidence shows the highest densities of tigers can be found in the most heavily visited areas. The presence of tourists scares away poachers, the biggest threat posed to this endangered species. The demands of Chinese medicine ensure tiger poaching means big bucks to illegal hunters and the subsequent decimation of the population.
Even more worrying is the impact this ban may have on the local economy. With many tourists paying hundreds of pounds for treks and tours, the tourism industry has provided an invaluable income for numerous villages and local people who live near the reserves. Should this ban be made permanent, hundreds of people could lose their jobs and face destitution. Those who protect the tigers will be gone, leaving them vulnerable and at risk of a severe decline in numbers.
The WWF has recently reported that the tiger population in Bardia National Park, Nepal, has doubled. Even though figures are still a lowly 37, the commitment of the government to saving these animals means the battle against poaching is currently being won. This ban has the potential to be a significant setback in the progress which has been made so far in India, and renders the efforts and financial investments of conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts alike to save these creatures, useless.
Tigers need tourism. It is within these reserves that they can find security against poaching. A decision to make it permanent was due later in the year, but in the last few days the Indian Supreme Court has indicated that it would relax the ban if the central government can establish new guidelines to regulate tiger tourism in the country. Let’s hope that tourism, the tigers’ greatest friend, will not become its foe.