Tiger Tourism – The Battle Between Commerce and Conservation

On an application by a conservationist, Ajay Dube, the Supreme Court of India has temporarily banned tourism in the core areas of all tiger reserves. The objective of the judgment is to allow the tiger populations to recover. It is believed by conservationists that tourism to the tiger reserves disrupts the lives of tigers to the point where the tiger can no longer behave naturally and breed properly.

The problem at root is that the tourism industry abuses planning permission (or is granted planning permission corruptly) and builds in the wrong places encroaching on tiger habitat to allow tourists an even better view of the ever scarcer and rare tiger. It is a self-defeating process.

Corbett Tiger Reserve

Photo by LeeAnne Adams.

There is no doubt that inadequate controls are in place to protect Bengal tiger reserves. Banning tourism is a desperate measure. It is remarkable that this has happened and a sign that the authorities in India are waking up to the almost certain extinction of the Bengal tiger in India. I would not be surprised, however, if the judgement is adjusted and things return to normal in due course because commerce is mightier that conservation. The Abandoned Tiger highlights some shortcomings in tiger reserve management including the uncontrolled encroachment of tourist development in and around tiger reserves.

The tourism industry say the presence of tourists helps to protect the tiger; almost the exact opposite to the conservationists’ argument. The tourism industry also make the point that the income earned from tourism provides investment in tiger protection. But does it? How much of the money made from tourism finds its way to tiger conservation directly or indirectly? In my experience big business thinks short term and only in support of self-interest. They have little regard for long term prospects or conservation, which leads to abuses and in this case a gradual destruction of the source of income, the tiger.

Ultimately when making decisions about tiger conservation, we should go back to basics if we can. To argue that tourism helps the tiger is flawed because the process is flawed due to abuses and corruption etc.. The best way to help the tiger is to allow nature to take its course.

The Bengal tiger could possibly recover if allowed enough space (there is a question mark as to whether the reserves are big enough), tranquility and protection. There is a massive lack of proper protection for the tiger in India. And nothing is being done to tackle the root cause of poaching for tiger body parts – Chinese traditional medicine. We are not allowed to criticise China because we are dependent on them for cheap goods and international trade deals.

When the world economy is fragile or downright poor as it is currently (July 2012) China is fireproof. They can do what they like including the destruction of the Bengal tiger through their insatiable demand for tiger body parts. No country will put pressure on them to cut off the demand for tiger body parts. This is more important than anything else in conserving the Bengal tiger. Oh…you can forget CITES, it does not work.

It is worth noting that the judge in the Supreme Court case was doubtful that his order would be carried out by the governments of five states concerned. He said he would make a costs order against the chief secretaries of these five states if they did not do as ordered. The ‘defaulting states’ are: Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. This hints at the enormous difficulty of getting things done at a government level. While business powers on regardless government ambles on behind. Red tape is a major obstacle too.

The issue that arises for the tourism industry is whether they can make a go of it in what are called the ‘buffer zones’ – non-core areas surrounding the core areas. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) propose to phase out tourism from core areas within 5 years. The court will make a decision on whether this is lawful.

As an example, the sort of impact that this will have on tourism with respect to the Corbett tiger reserve is that three forest lodges will be out of bounds to tourists. These are: Dhikala, Gairal and Sarapdhuli. Corbett is one of the best known tiger reserves and one of the most popular. It is in the north of India.


Photo on Flickr

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