Should the approximately 1,700 tigers left in India be treated as sacrosanct, not to be exploited by India’s tourism industry? Or, should they be looked at as valuable commodities, responsible for filling the coffers of the state?
This is the firestorm of a debate that Ajay Dubey sparked off, when he, through a public interest litigation filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court in September 2010, asked that tourism be banned in ‘core’ tiger areas — zones where tiger density is particularly high — in line with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and its 2006 amendment.
Eventually, the apex court asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to weigh in. Subsequently, on July 9, the MoEF filed the guidelines for ecotourism in and around protected areas, asking for a ban in ‘core’ areas, which the Supreme Court (SC) then enacted across 41 state-run tiger reserves in the country.
Not surprisingly, this enraged the members of the tourism industry as well as states which ply a lucrative trade from tiger-related activities. Facing the heat from these constituents, the MoEF, in an absurd twist, went back to the SC and asked them to reverse the ban, which the court found preposterous. Nevertheless, on August 27, the apex court asked the Centre to frame revised guidelines, after consulting various stakeholders.
What’s a tiger worth?
While many sanctuaries in South India have already begun turning away tourists, the good news is that the order has arrived at a time when most parks are closed because of the monsoons. However, gates open in mid-October, and bookings have already taken a hit. “The livelihood of over a million people — tour guides, artisans, drivers and their families, who make a living because of tourism, would have no other employment opportunity,” says Belinda Wright, a pioneer of tiger conservation, executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India and the current caretaker of the Kipling Camp in Kanha National Park.
Exactly how valuable are tigers? Back-of-the-envelope industry estimates suggest that a single tigress in Ranthambore could have generated direct revenues of over $100 million (around Rs 550 crore) for the area in the past 12 years. This means that the 1,706 tigers, up from 1,411 in 2007, are significant money churners.
In a study conducted by conservation biologist Krithi K Karanth of the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), Bangalore, wildlife tourism growing at an average rate of 15 per cent across 10 parks (namely, Ranthambore, Sariska, Pench, Kanha, Anshi-Dandeli, Bhadra, Nagarahole, Bandipur, Periyar and Mudumalai). While tourist numbers range from more than 5,000 people per year in Bhadra to more than 500,000 in Periyar, tourism revenue varies from Rs 2.75 lakh to Rs 15.15 crore a year, across these 10 parks. Karanth said that this figure was based just on gate fees at the parks and not ancillary sources such as film-making or even hospitality.
Tour operators insist that tourism has protected and boosted a growth in tiger numbers and it is not the other way round. They cite the example of Madhya Pradesh, the country’s most popular tiger reserve destination, where, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the number of tigers has gone up from 231 in 2006 to 265 in 2011. The number of tourist arrivals has also increased by 20 per cent — from 514,000 to 615,000 over the same period. Around 20 per cent of foreign tourists visit a tiger sanctuary.
Those are encouraging figures, but not everyone sees them through such rose-tinted lenses. CWS’ Karanth, for instance, pointed out recently that “at one of India’s best parks, it was estimated that 95 per cent of revenue goes to private hands while the park gets less than five per cent and local residents get less than 0.5 per cent.”
“We believe that well-managed and regulated tourism can have many benefits for conservation,” says Ravi Singh, CEO, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) but adds that “it is apparent that in several of our protected areas, tourism is not being managed the way it should be and neither are the benefits of tourism accruing adequately to local communities.”
Ultimately, the existing ban may also be a by-product of the paranoia surrounding the near-extinct species. After all, the tiger has staged a recovery in the last few years after being decimated over decades by the voracious Chinese appetite for tiger bones, considered aphrodisiacsas, as well as the Tibetan fondness for tiger skin worn as a ceremonial garb during festivals.
Would the ban on ‘core’ areas, then, boost numbers by allowing tigers to breed in peace? Or, would it, in fact, facilitate poaching by ensuring that the parks have less of a human presence, and fewer dollar-incentivised locals to protect the animal? Tough to say. For one, there’s no clear-cut definition of what a ‘core’ area is. “Every tiger sanctuary is different in topography and the tourism activity taking place in the core zones differs from one sanctuary to the other,” says Vishal Singh of Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFT). According to TOFT, in Pench Tiger Reserve, 62.5 per cent of tourist activity takes place in core areas, whereas in Panna, such activity is around 15 per cent and in Satpura the figure is only 7.5 per cent.
The SC has given the centre four weeks to come up with a compromise that balances the interests of all stakeholders. Hopefully, this would result in a solution that serves, most of all, this vanishing cat that has been a national symbol for eons.
(With inputs from Siddharth Kalhans in Lucknow and Shashikant Trivedi in Bhopal)