Is tiger tourism helping or hindering?

Ban on tiger tourism causes an uproar

Last week, the Supreme Court in India ordered an interim ban on tourism in “core zones” of more than 40 tiger reserves. This news has caused an understandable uproar among conservationists and the travel and tourism industry — and there are people speaking out on both sides of the issue. I never saw a tiger when I was at Ranthambhore National Park, one of the India’s premier tiger reserves, in 2011. But I developed a keen interest in the fate of the tiger, India’s iconic animal symbol, and wrote about my visit in Looking for India’s tigers in Ranthambhore. Below, I interview two tiger conservationists in India to get their views on whether banning tiger tourism will help or hinder tigers — whose numbers are quickly diminishing. Time is running out for this magnificent animal and for many other species — not to mention the few forests and wild, natural places left in India.

Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, Ranthambhore National Park India

Dr. Dharmendra Khandal

Goodwill for tigers

I interviewed Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, director of Tiger Watch, when I was at Ranthambhore, and he told me he is pro-tourism, as long as it is well-managed. Yesterday, Dr. Khandal emailed a PDF report to me, Transformation of Life, which you can access here, about the transformation that has taken place in the lives of the local people who depend on tiger tourism around Ranthambhore national park. In it, Dr. Khandal writes that the controlled tourism trade in Ranthambhore, “has created both a goodwill for the tigers and a lobby of all the people benefitting from tiger tourism.” The 100-page document sketches the history of tiger conservation and tourism in Ranthambhore, and precisely how it benefits the local economy, and profiles 59 people and organizations that thrive because of tiger tourism. Many of the people profiled have had their lives turned around because of the tiger tourism industry, such as Hemraj Meena, who began life as a “simple villager” and is now one of the most sought after guides by wildlife enthusiasts and wildlife filmmakers. The document makes for inspirational reading!

[Note: Dr. Dharmendra Khandal is portayed as a real-life super-hero, as well as scientist, in this National Geographic article, Cat Fight.]

Wake-up call

When I was in India, I got to know Indian conservation journalist, author and artist Ananda Banerjee, who is actively involved with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (formerly Project Tiger). I asked him about the news, and this is what he told me:

Conservation journalist Ananda Banerjee

Conservation journalist Ananda Banerjee, right.

Q. Ananda, what is your interpretation of the ban?

A. This is just an interim order and the National Parks are anyway closed for the monsoon months. This court order should be a wakeup call for both the tourism industry and the respective forest department to set their house in order. The court will act on the ‘eco-tourism guild-lines and regulations’ which is drafted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest with public consultations, which shall be the final order.

Q. How will this affect tourists who want to see a tiger in India? How about the local population?

A.One is never assured of a tiger sighting in India because of the nature of our forests unlike Africa. Also, the government never once said that they want a complete ban on tourism, it has asked for regulation. So some resort owners are making a mountain out of a molehill. There is a need for regulation as resorts have come up in a haphazard way, blocking traditional animal migratory routes or forest corridors, which connect one forest patch to the other.

Tourism will not be affected, but regulated, so the local population who do the menial jobs — guards, drivers, cleaning and washing etc. — will continue to do so without any social upliftment.

Royal BengalTiger, India Ananda Banerjee

Royal Bengal Tiger. Photo courtesy Ananda Banerjee

Q. What’s the best way to ensure the tiger’s survival in the wild?

A. The best way is to save its habitat. Less the 4% of tiger forest is left in the country.

Q. Do we have to choose between the tiger’s survival and the human need for  space, safety, etc.?

A. Unfortunately yes. Our development demands is not only pushing the tiger to extinction, but a whole lot of other species, too.

We should remember that there is much more to see and enjoy in a forest. The tiger is just incidental. One should enjoy nature to rejuvenate oneself. Wilderness is something spiritual and personal.There is too much obsession with the tiger, especially with its numbers, but sadly no one is that obsessed with its habitat – the forest. Save the forest first, the tiger and all other species will automatically be saved.

Unfortunately there is no ‘eco-tourism’ here in India. All nature/wildlife tourism is sold as eco-tourism, which is also just tiger tourism — and with no regards for the resources they are drawing (for example ground water, power and proper waste management).

photograph of tiger in Ranthambhore national park by Tiger Watch director Dharmendra Khandal

Tiger in Ranthambhore National Park, courtesy Tiger Watch director Dharmendra Khandal

What do you think?

Are you for or against tiger tourism? After my experience at Ranthambhore, interviewing Dr. Khandal, and getting to know Ananda Banerjee, I am pro-tiger tourism. I think if it is regulated and well-managed, it can help bring attention to the plight of tiger, other species and the forest habitat, as well as provide a good livelihood for many people. Plus, it is a great tourism draw in a country that frankly should be attracting way more tourists and travellers. For balance and a different perspective, here’s a blog by my Twitter friend Rushikesh, For the eye of the tiger, that persuasively argues against tiger tourism.

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11 Responses to Is tiger tourism helping or hindering?

  1. Bret @ Green Global Travel August 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I think the problem here lies more with mismanagement than with ecotourism itself. Responsible ecotourism requires limiting access (as they do in the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest). I recognize poverty-stricken India’s need for the cash infusion tiger tourism brings, but if it’s not managed sustainably then there’s no future in it, financially or environmentally.
    Bret @ Green Global Travel recently posted..ECO NEWS: India’s Tiger Tourism BanMy Profile

  2. Jennifer August 3, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    This is such a tricky, complicated issue — with no one right answer, probably. The Bronx Zoo in NYC is now more about conservation of species through protection and breeding than ever, but those animals (elephants and the like) are still in a zoo. If the tigers are off limits to tourists, and their natural habitat is severely restricted size-wise, poachers would have an easier job killing them. Responsible ecotravel would keep locals employed, and less desperate to provide for their families that way.
    Jennifer recently posted..Snorkeling with Whale Sharks near Cancun, MexicoMy Profile

  3. Mariellen Ward August 3, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Thanks for your comments Bret and Jen, I agree with both of you. I think well-managed tourism is the best way to go forward — but the trick is how do you achieve well-managed tourism.

    I know from visiting Tiger Watch that a HUGE percentage of their time is spent rehabilitating poachers and their families and they have done great things such as setting up training programs for the adults and building schools for the kids.

    Of course it would help if there was no market for tiger parts. I wish more was done to stop this trade, especially in China of course.
    Mariellen Ward recently posted..Is tiger tourism helping or hindering?My Profile

  4. Rease August 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    I think these sorts are arguments are always quite tricky, like with tourism in the Galapagos islands. However, I agree with you, if the tourism is regulated and the habitat is not too terribly damaged, it seems to have a positive benefit for everyone.
    Rease recently posted..Food Friday: Great Grapes Wine and Food Festival in Baltimore, MarylandMy Profile

  5. Mariellen Ward August 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Thanks for the comment Rease! Nice to see you on my blog, I appreciate it. The consensus does seem to lead towards managed tourism. I hope that’s what India is able to organize! More than 60% of the world’s tiger population in the wild is in india, so they have a big responsibility.
    Mariellen Ward recently posted..Is tiger tourism helping or hindering?My Profile

  6. Turtle August 4, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Interesting to hear the different arguments for and against. I guess, ultimately, it’s about finding a solution that is sustainable and balances the needs of the tigers and the local communities (I don’t think the ‘needs’ of the tourists is all that important). A complete ban doesn’t sound like the right way to go, though.

  7. Abby August 8, 2012 at 2:49 am #

    Wonderful, thought-provoking interview. I agree that there is no right answer, as I’m sure so many do. Animal issues are so layered and tricky these days.
    Abby recently posted..Daydream of the day: palm treesMy Profile

  8. Jeff August 15, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    Mariellen, I’m glad you got to meet with Dharmendra. I met him during my second tiger trip to India a couple of years ago, and he is a very passionate and knowledgeable advocate for the animals. I am a sponsor of the school for the village children which his organisation runs. The villagers will exploit the tiger for economic gain, as we exploited our resources to make us prosperous. It’s up to us and their society to decide if that exploitation will be via tourists’ cameras or poachers’ guns. To expect them to lose the tourist industry yet still protect the tigers would be extremely foolish and selfish. No tourism = no tigers. Also, badly-managed tourism = no tigers.

  9. najmuddin August 16, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    Banning tiger tourism in india
    Tiger tourism or wildlife tourism in India.
    India is home for the tiger,The big majestic cats are symbols of power, freedom and sheer beauty. As we turn the pages of history we learn about a lot of animal and human conflict from tiger’s being hunted by the royalty for their honor and prestige to the the local folk killing the big cats to save their livelihood.
    India still after a lot of destruction by human behavior holds ground for the tiger. Though plenty of green corridors across states and boundaries through out the country the big cat population has shrunken to fractions and the count is falling by the day.
    Tiger reserves across the country have messy calculations with some reserves admitting the failure of saving the tiger.
    Initiatives taken by the government of India to protect the tiger have fallen to the deaf ear. Rules are made by the ministry which struggles a bit and then looses hope.
    Tribal hamlets have been in the reserves since centuries, their generations have passed and ended in the wilderness. Knowing the pulse of the jungles from animal behavioral patterns to the good and bad of what mother nature has to offer. These tribes have blended with the eco – system and nature patterns. Though the government has created many benefits for their well being , not many benefits have reached them and hence they are left with not many options but to fall in the line of poachers and wood smugglers,helping them out for a share of quick money.
    The forest rangers and guards know the animal behavior and their movement patterns, they have marked the animal movement corridors but are struggling with encroachment around the reserves and into the animal movement corridor.
    These encroachments often happen when land is allotted to the tribals from shifting them to outer areas or be villagers as their farm lands by local political support. Local politics or state politics have in some way played an indirect role in disturbing the eco-balance either by leasing land for mining or by construction of dams.
    The cat and mouse chase between the forest department and the tribal folk continues as the the tribes viewing them as someone who would relocate them from where they have lived for centuries and the department tightening them from all the illegal activities they do or support.
    Debates across the country for saving the tiger, discussions held in the ministry by ministers who have power of the seat than knowledge of the wild is doing no good to the big cat or any benefit on ground.
    Need of the hour is to promote quality eco -tourism ,promoting eco-lodges around the reserves would act as awareness institutions and create major employment for the tribals . It would make the urban population understand the negative impact of urbanization and teach them the sustainability of eco friendly earth materials. These eco-friendly resorts would act as a catalyst between the forest departments and the tribes making work in the reserves more like a link and chain.
    The benefit of direct employment to the tribal folk at the resort such as guides and staff would help the resorts to learn from their centuries old experience of animal behavior and highlight it more to spread more awareness across the country and the employment of tribes would help them not to fall in the line of illegal poachers and wood smugglers. Relocating them will not be necessary as they would act as self sufficient guards who would guard the reserves for their own bread and butter.
    Forming a link between the forest department, local tribal folk and the eco -tourist resorts would be the only solution to save the tiger.
    Eco-tourism has to be promoted and picnic tourism has to be banned in the reserves. Tribals, forest departments and the eco friendly resorts have to be linked for a joint effort.
    Unless the ministry does this I don’t see India saving the Tiger anymore.

    Syed Muhammed Najmuddin,

    S. M. A. Hotels pvt ltd
    Hyderabad AP

  10. Ravi August 17, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    How about tiger-breeding?

  11. Mariellen Ward August 17, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Thank you Syed, for a very thoughtful and considered comment. I agree with you, I think well-managed eco-tourism is the ideal situation. I hope India can pull it off. It would benefit everyone.
    Mariellen Ward recently posted..The art of the Canadian landscapeMy Profile

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