Tiger safaris: Critical but must be better managed

06 August 2010


Published in Daily Telegraph, UK website 8th June 2010

A scandal surrounding the death of a tiger in one of India's most popular national parks has laid bare the tensions between the country's wildlife authorities and the tourist industry.
The animal, a tigress suckling three six-month-old cubs, whose survival is now also at risk, was killed last month in the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Now an official report has confirmed the widespread suspicion that the animal was hit by a vehicle carrying park officers. The accident happened in the early hours of the morning; the vehicle was in the park without authority and it appears that it was being used for an illegal private game drive.

The park authorities originally tried to pin the blame on a tourist jeep. Only a few weeks earlier an attempt was made to ban tourists altogether from India's tiger sanctuaries. One leading wildlife tourism operator put his frustration succinctly: "This incident simply underscores an important point – the Forest Department does not want tourism because tourism imposes an inconvenient monitoring of its activities. The department long ago lost all goodwill among the people who should be its natural supporters."

The exposure of such hostility between two of the groups most crucial in the effort to save wild tigers from extinction could not come at a more sensitive time.

The story so far: out of the blue, the Indian National Tiger Conservation Authority announced that tigers were being "loved to death" and that "tiger tourism" would therefore be phased out. After international uproar, the idea was scrapped. Back to square one for tigers and tourists.

Well, not quite, because the most disgraceful part of the whole episode was the shocking admission that there are now fewer than 1,400 wild tigers left in the entire subcontinent. And this in a land that, by one estimate, possesses sufficient habitat to support a tiger population of up to 30,000.

Not for the first time, the imminent possibility of extinction of the most iconic of all endangered species has revived the whole question of man's intrusion on the natural world. The difference on this occasion is that the particular strain of intrusion to come under examination is tourism. One point on which everyone seems agreed is that the management of wildlife tourism in India needs radical revision. To that end, the travel industry group, TOFT (Travel Operators for Tigers), has written to India's minister for the environment calling for a summit conference on wildlife tourism.

Man's presence in the forest need not jeopardise the tiger's survival. In fact, given the factors that really threaten the animal's existence, tourism ought to be one of the mechanisms deployed to secure it.

The tiger is dying because of two centuries of crime, greed, political apathy and corruption. Tigers face their greatest ever risk of extermination at the time of the weakest ever commitment to their survival. The decision to end tiger tourism was evidence of calamitous failure.

It's a dismal history. First there was trophy hunting. Between 1800 and 1950 some 160,000 tigers were slaughtered. In the Punjab they were annihilated. Then began the long and, for the tiger, potentially terminal eradication of habitat. Huge tracts of forest were felled to supply timber for building and, even more voraciously, to make sleepers for India's massive railway system. Yet by the turn of the 20th century India's tiger population stood at around 40,000. By 1972 that figure had fallen to 1,800.

A ruthless new threat was now on the scene – poaching. The demand for tiger parts, particularly from China, was for traditional medicines, notably the deluded desire for aphrodisiacs. Later, another market developed in Tibet, where a tiger skin sells for about $35,000 (£24,000) to be stitched into long coats called chubas. Two of the most effective conservation measures would be to convince the Chinese that tiger products shrivel their penises, and to persuade Tibetans that they look ridiculous in animal skins.

In the early Eighties, Indira Gandhi's government took crisis action and showed what could be done. The export of tiger skins was banned and new laws were introduced to protect wildlife and forest. By 1984 tiger numbers were said to have increased to about 4,000.

The revival was brief. In 1992 at least 15 tigers were taken by poachers in Ranthambore in Rajasthan, one of the most famous reserves. There was another international outcry. Still the numbers declined to the point where in this century two supposed sanctuaries – Sariska and Panna – were discovered to have no tigers at all. Although tigers are now being returned, the entire population in both parks had been wiped out. So far this year around a dozen tigers have been taken by poachers.

Tourism's record is not impeccable. At the very least it causes discomfort to tigers, sometimes distress. I have watched appalled as up to 30 vehicles, mostly little open-top Maruti safari cars, crammed with craning people, have swarmed around a tiger that has wandered on to a road in a reserve. I recall watching a cub, about 17 months old, trying to cross a track only to be confronted by an endless picket of wheels. It eventually retreated, confused, amid a clatter of camera shutters.

Like tourism everywhere, tourism to India's national parks is growing – by up to 15 per cent a year. India has failed to manage the growth. It has attempted to accommodate the extra numbers, not control them. Many of the national parks are small, certainly by African standards, and some are close to large centres of population. Ninety-five per cent of park visitors are Indian; 10 years ago the figure was 10 per cent.

The real problem lies outside the parks. Few lodges around the Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench reserves in Madhya Pradesh (MP as it's known, the so-called Tiger State) make any reasonable return on investment through tourism. There are simply too many of them. The returns come from the rising value of land, which is privately owned. With no effective laws to limit development, building is indiscriminate and overcrowding is inevitable.

Several things need to happen.

    * A simple ticket system would restrict admission to the reserves. It's a notion to which all of us who travel are going to have to become accustomed. National parks, historic sites, even cities, can only hold so many people. Like theatres they have finite capacities and, as in theatres, visitors will have to book to enter them. There are plenty of precedents, from cars wanting to enter Portofino, to campers in the Grand Canyon and families wanting to holiday on Lord Howe Island in Australia.

      Most reserves in India have declared their "carrying capacities", but there is immense pressure to set them too high because of the number of lodges on their boundaries. Set the capacities lower and you will simultaneously reduce the need for so many lodges. Madhya Pradesh is attempting to limit numbers and looking at the feasibility of separating day-trippers and picnickers from those with a serious interest in wildlife.

    * Better trained guides would restrain the behaviour of drivers, as well as make visitors aware of all the country's other fauna. Some of my most enjoyable days in India's tiger reserves have been spent actively not looking for tigers. As Brian Jackman so evocatively describes, in the headlong hunt for big cats it is easy to ignore how beautiful the parks are. Also, there is little encouragement to relish how much else they contain: leopards, for a start, as well as wild dogs, jungle cats, sloth bears and myriad birds.

    * Tourism's most serious drawback is in the way its infrastructure has contributed to the depletion of habitat and disrupted wildlife movements. Satellite pictures show how lodges, corralled behind barbed wire and chain-link fencing, are throttling crucial corridors between tiger breeding areas. If India is serious about protecting its wildlife, such lodges should be knocked down. It was only as a result of a pusillanimous planning process that they were built in the first place.
    * People living around the national parks must be given a direct stake in the tiger's protection. In the game parks of Africa, it is rare for local communities not to benefit from the tourism that wildlife attracts; in India, wildlife has no perceived value, although things are beginning to change, albeit only at the most expensive end of the market. Instead of seeing tigers as predators that take their cattle and trample their crops, villagers are starting to recognise them as a source of amenities such as street lighting and fresh water.

In South Africa, land dedicated to wilderness tourism generates more than four times the revenue of land used for agriculture. Besides providing jobs, wildlife tourism has built health clinics, classrooms, supplied advice on HIV/Aids and trained teachers. Such a re-evaluation of the tiger just might cause an Indian villager to hesitate before accepting the blandishments of a poacher seeking a guide to his prey.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, "Ultimately conservation is about people. If you don't have sustainable development around these [wildlife] parks, then people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive."

Tourism not only engenders awareness of the importance of wildlife, even pride, it also supplies a vital element of surveillance in the national parks. There is plenty of evidence that tigers thrive in the reserves most popular with tourists. This is partly because poachers are deterred from busy parks, but also because the park authorities, conscious of the spotlight of international witness, feel an extra degree of accountability. In Bandhavgarh it was the vigilance of tourists that led to park staff being implicated in the death of the tigress.

The tiger is resilient; its ancestors roamed with the dinosaurs. If tigers can't coexist with man, no wilderness is safe from man's destruction. Man needs tigers to affirm the morality of his species; tigers need man for their survival. Tourism, properly directed, is one activity than can benefit both.

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