Aug. 23 – A potential ban on tiger tourism within India may devastate the population of the endangered beast. A century ago, India was home to about 45,000 tigers; in 2010 this number had been reduced to 1,706. In July, India’s Supreme Court banned all forms of tourism within the core areas of the country’s tiger parks in a bid to protect the tiger from extinction. This law, however, has been widely criticized due to it threatening not only the livelihood of the tiger population, but also those who earn their living from tiger tourism.
Ajay Dubey, who filed the petition to India’s Supreme Court, has claimed that he wants to see the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act properly enforced. This law states that every tiger reserve must contain a core area where only forestry officials can enter. Tourists are then only allowed to enter a buffer zone surrounding the reserve. Dubey claims that tiger tourism is negatively impacting the endangered species.
“There were 700 tigers in Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000; now the number has come down to 257,” said Dubey. “It speaks volumes.”
“Tiger conservation is being adversely affected by mindless tourism; the large number of vehicles loaded with people were traumatizing the endangered species in the critical tiger habitat,” Dubey added.
India’s State Forest Department has stated that the ban on tiger tourism will not negatively affect the conservation of the tiger population. The Department has stated that tourism is just one source of income, and that their tiger conservation efforts receive funding from multiple sources.
“[Tourism] is just one source of income; there are several other sources. We have our department budget,” said Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden Dipak Sarmah.
In reaction to this law, there has been a widespread out-cry from environmentalists and people from within the tiger tourism industry. Indian citizens who have been working in the tiger tourism industry for over 20 years have been suddenly forced to find new employment.
Yadvendra Singh, who has been running the Tiger Eye Adventure Tours since 1992, said he “couldn’t believe it.” Since the implementation of the law, he has been conducting a roadside protest to remind the government about how central tigers are to local economies.
“It’s not just the guides who will be affected,” said Singh. “It’s the mechanics who service the jeeps, the hawkers who sell T-shirts, the hoteliers, the women who make handicrafts.”
Satish Jain, who is also a tiger guide, stated that “if tourists are not allowed in the core tiger zone, our economy will collapse.”
“If the ban on tourism continues, it will be the end of the tiger in India. We’re the ones who put energy into tracking them. We deter poachers,” Singh says, highlights how the ban on tourism will have a negative impact on tiger conservation efforts. “Tourists are only allowed in the park for six hours every day, but we guides take it in turns to patrol the park from sunrise to sunset. Voluntarily.”
Belinda Wright, who is the executive director of India’s Wildlife Protection Society, agrees with this, claiming that ‘there is no way the forestry department alone can protect tigers from poachers and local encroachment on the land.’
Poaching has risen dramatically in the past year. As of August 9 of this year, 34 tigers have been killed by poachers, which is more than double the size of last year’s figure.
YK Sahu, a divisional forest officer, believes that the tourism industry has helped to protect the tigers rather than further endanger their population. He states that in the areas that are visited by tourists in the national park he administers, the tiger population is flourishing.
There is not “one scrap of evidence” that proves tourism negatively impacts the tiger population, said Sahu. He further claims that “the relationship between the presence of tourists and the number of tigers is not inversely proportional, but directly proportional,” as in 2005-06 his park had 26 tigers, which has now risen to 53 despite increasing tourism.
The recently introduced legislation went under review on August 22 in the Supreme Court, where the final assessment was supposed to have been made. In an interesting move, however, the government has seemingly reversed on its initial stance and requested that they needed further time to rethink their guidelines. In response, the Supreme Court extended the temporary ban on tourism by another week until August 29.
The Supreme Court further criticized the government’s tiger conservation efforts, and their lack of effective measures to properly sustain the tiger population.
“What are you going to do to save tigers?” the judges asked. “What have you done for the tiger project? The Union of India has not done anything except filing affidavits.”
The future of India’s tiger tourism is thus currently in a state of limbo. Home to half of the world’s tiger population, it is clear that India must do all it can to protect the endangered species. The problem that remains is finding the most effective way of doing this. Enacting laws that over-regulate tiger tourism is seemingly ineffective, and further endangers not only the tigers, but also the local economies that rely on tourism as a source of income. The decision of the Supreme Court on August 29 will ultimately define the future direction of this issue.