A number of wildlife conservationists and respected ecotourism operators believe that tourism helps to protect the world’s largest cat, Panthera tigris. Many conservationists believe that the presence of tourists helps keep poachers away. Some proactive tour operators such as Wildand Adventures put some of their profits towards conservation and social programs. Sanjay Gubbi, Tiger Program Coordinator for the well-respected conservation organization Panthera has said that, “India’s wildlife tourism industry benefits communities by stimulating local economies and providing employment.” Another benefit of tiger tourism is helping to inspire travelers to support conservation efforts (though much more can be done in this area).
Ajay Dubey, a conservationist who works with the organization Prayatna, thinks that tiger tourism as currently practiced in India has been a threat to the big cats. Panthera’s Mr. Gubbi notes that many tourism operations practice “unethical safari practices.” In some tiger reserves, lodges have been built in key habitats, and the cats are stressed by large numbers of jeeps crowding them. Mr. Dubey recently took the Indian government to court to spur improvements in how tiger tourism is managed in the country. This lawsuit has divided many people on both sides of the argument, whether the final ruling, which came out in October, will improve the situation.
One point that everyone on both sides of the argument agrees to is that these animals face a serious situation. Most estimates are that fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild across Asia, with about 1,700 surviving in India. Those numbers mean a more than 90 percent drop over the past century and are why they are currently listed as endangered by the IUCN’s Red List. The main reason for this drop however, is not tourism but poaching. These cats’ skins and body parts can bring thousands of dollars on the black market.
I have spent most of the past decade working on improving how tourism benefits the efforts to protect endangered sea turtles. While these two animals and their conservation methods are very different, many of the same principles apply. For tourism to work, it must be done in a way that minimizes damage to key habitat, prevents unnecessary stress on the animals and generates concrete benefits to both conservation programs and nearby communities.
The recent ruling by the Indian Supreme Court on Prayatna’s lawsuit has the potential to improve how tourism is managed in the country. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the argument were disappointed in the lack of strong regulations to protect tigers in the decision. Julian Matthews of Travel Operators for Tigers stated that, “Sadly there is nothing in these guidelines that gives anyone… a legal ‘road map’ as to how they (the forests) can be restored.” The primary responsibility for ending the construction of infrastructure is now in the hands of the state governments, which have been given six months to develop new tourism and conservation guidelines.
Tour operators have a strong responsibility to advocate not only for regulations that will allow their businesses to grow but also to make compromises that keep the best interests of the tigers in mind. If real changes aren’t made to both improve tourism management and reduce poaching, tourism businesses and local communities will suffer alongside these charismatic animals.
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