By Sanjay Gubbi, Tiger Program Coordinator for Panthera
Some wildlife conservationists welcomed it as the move to save tigers. A few called it ridiculous. The media pronounced it as a ban on tourism in India’s 41 tiger reserves. Regardless of the label, the recent interim ban on tiger tourism issued by India’s Supreme Court has garnered widespread international attention and controversy, with many inaccurate interpretations circulating of the Supreme Court’s order. In reality, the court is not moving to restrict the public from viewing tigers in the wild, but is instead temporarily suspending such tourism to achieve a much-needed conservation goal for India’s tigers.
The ban was enacted to ensure that Indian states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which maintain model tiger reserves, delineate their “buffer zones”.
Prior to 2006, India’s legal system did not recognize the concept of a tiger reserve. A later amendment to the country’s wildlife legislation established new models of ‘core tiger zones’ to be kept inviolate, and ‘buffer zones’ encompassing multiple-use forest areas. The tourism industry challenged this decision, claiming it would negatively impact the economies of local communities, critical investments made for tiger conservation and remove the “extra sets of eyes” provided by tourists that help to protect tigers. Yet, in most Indian tiger reserves, tourism operations are concentrated in small parts of the reserve, while larger regions of the reserve are protected by local wildlife law enforcement staff, which patrol day and night to prevent the illegal poaching of tigers. Admittedly, India’s wildlife tourism industry benefits communities by stimulating local economies and providing employment for residents. However, at the same time, many tourism operations’ practices negatively impact the wildlife from which they profit, by fragmenting tiger habitat through the development of ill-placed ‘eco-lodges,’ and utilizing unethical safari practices.
The crux of the issue is that the majority of the tiger tourism industry focuses on short-sighted, ‘profit-driven’ activities, while disingenuously promoting these operations as ‘eco-tourism.’ In contrast, tiger reserves with sound ethical and conservation practices do exist, though very small in number.
Located in the Western Ghats, Bandipur is slightly larger than the size of New York City (303 square miles) and exists as one of the best tiger reserves in the country. Home to nearly 80 tigers and one of the highest population densities anywhere in the world, Bandipur maintains a fine model of protection, but in such small areas (compared to African reserves) tourism needs to be carried out with utmost caution.
I am confident the court will permit tourism focused on education with local benefits, rather than a marathon of chaotic and mass tourism operations. Conservationists have already proposed a shift of tourism concentrations to buffer zones to keep the hearts of the reserves intact and properly protect tigers and their prey.
Pragmatic conservationists support controlled wildlife tourism. It is needed and valued as an education tool that if done correctly, can benefit local communities and their economies. The NTCA’s tourism policy will be adjusted in due time, and when that happens, it is the responsibility of the Indian government, people and wildlife tourism industry to implement the highest-ethical practices to protect the dwindling populations of tigers from which they profit.
Read the Deccan Herald article by Sanjay Gubbi, "Tiger tourism as educational tool"