Sunday, May 20, 2012

Loving them to death or providing a third eye? My views on 'Tiger Tourism'

I'm not a tiger expert like Valmik Thapar. I'm not an activist on the field like Vidya Athreya or Dharmendra Khandal either. I am not pretentious enough to consider myself an armchair tiger crusader either - unlike Diya Banerjee. I'm just another Indian who loves the natural history of this country to bits, especially the tiger. I've said this earlier, I'll say this again - there's nothing quite like seeing a tiger in the wild. To photograph it with a stable hand is something else. I have seen the lazy elegance of the lion. I've seen the feline grace of the leopard. There's something about the tiger though that sets it apart from its peninsular cousins. Is it the swagger of the beast - a gait that's quite contrary to its acquired fear of humans? Is it the tiger's beauty? Is it about how elusive it can be in the wild? I can't tell, though I know that to see tigers the wild has been amongst the best experiences of my life till date. I've rarely done anything cooler.

"A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated - as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

As I write this post, the Supreme Court of India is hearing a petition by Prayatna - a Bhopal based NGO led by prominent activist Ajay Dubey. The petition, amongst other things seeks to ban tiger tourism in the country as it exists today. The alternative they suggest is for tourism (read safaris) to happen in the fringes of the park, making the core zones of our tiger reserves 'inviolate'. The rationale behind this is that if traditional forest dwellers have left their ancestral land to give the tigers solitude and peace, how can tourists still have access to these woods? There are theories which state that the tiger cannot breed in the constant presence of humans and therefore tourists should stay out. After all the Sariska tigers have not bred successfully since their reintroduction in 2005 - a reason for this (probably) being the presence of villages in the forest. Tourism doesn't also bring too many benefits to local communities. Krithi Karanth's 2011 study titled 'Conservation Letters' revealed some startling statistics - local residents get less than 0.5% of the revenues from wildlife tourism. Even more startling is the revelation is that the park itself gets less than 5% of the revenues and close to 95% goes into private hands.

There's anecdotal evidence to say that the presence of tourists does disturb the tiger's life. I shot this tigress at Jim Corbett National Park - named after the legendary hunter turned conservationist. She's a beautiful female just separated from her mother, learning to live the solitary life of a tiger. Look at the picture carefully. Do you see how her tummy's gone well inside? Well, we were responsible for that. Let me explain. A day before I shot this picture, we'd gotten news of her presence in the Dhikala grasslands. We turned our vehicle around from where we were and headed there for a view. The news was right - she was there, stalking wild boar for a morning meal. We waited patiently for her to move across the grassland and grab her quarry, but alas that was not to be. Within minutes, tourist elephants ferrying tourists who wanted a 'closer view' invaded the grassland. The hunt was all over - the tigress stood no chance of making a kill in that commotion. When I saw her the next day (at the time of this photograph), she looked frail and hungry and a part of me regretted what had happened the previous day, though I wasn't directly responsible.

 So then, shouldn't we ban tourism? It seems to bring no benefits to the local community and it disturbs the tiger. If anything it seems to encroach on the tiger's last strongholds. As it turns out, my view is quite the opposite. The tiger is India's national animal. As Steve Winter would put it, the tiger is 'our bald eagle'. The beauty of tiger tourism in this country is in the fact that anyone with ₹500 ($9.17) can share a vehicle with other people and stand a chance to see the charismatic beast. People can't feel the desire to protect what they can't see or experience. If seeing a tiger in the wild becomes the privilege of just a handful of experts, it will probably mean an end to the love and passion several Indians feel for the beast and its protection. Last I checked, spreading the word was amongst the top few things one could do to save the tiger. When no one can see the tiger anymore, what word do you spread? That there's a mythical beast in the woods which incidentally we don't have access to anymore?

"Nobody will be interested in protecting something that they are not allowed to see or experience. Banning tourism in National Parks and sanctuaries will be disastrous for the tiger in particular, and an open invitation to poachers and the timber mafia." Belinda Wright


A few days back watchful tourists reported the presence of two suspicious youths in the core area of Tadoba Tiger Reserve. My friend Chirdeep wrote this rather sorrowful story of Maasti - the tiger with an amputated leg. The truth is that Maasti perhaps wouldn't even be alive today had it not been for a watchful wildlife enthusiast on safari. Tourism gives tiger conservation the third eye it woefully needs. In the current situation where patrolling is so ineffective that tigers get killed despite a red alert in the state, tourists end up being free watchdogs for the forest department. This is a service that we can't snub.

We can't wish away the issue of disturbance to tigers from tourists. That being said, we have to look at Tadoba and Ranthambhore - two of our most visited tiger reserves. Over the last year the tiger population at Tadoba has gone from 53 to 69. Ranthambhore has a baby boom despite the drones of tourists that visit the park. There's circumstantial evidence in Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and almost every other park that tigers are multiplying in the core zones despite tourism. Yes tourism needs regulation. Illegal constructions on the banks of the Kosi river need to stop. We need unhindered tiger corridors and if there are resorts that block this area, we need to bring them down. We need a strict clampdown on boorish behaviour in parks. Guides, mahouts and drivers need education to keep the interests of the animals first. We need to pay them well, so their livelihood isn't just dependent on the tips they collect in the seven months that the parks are open. As tourists we need to draw our own line of ethics. Do we want to do all it takes for that tiger sighting or are we willing to let go every now and then?


There's no point in slamming the elephant assisted tiger sightings of Central India - they are perhaps the most organised and well behaved viewing opportunities for tourists. Under the supervision of park rangers, the elephants ferry tourists four at a time for a five minute, regulated view of the tiger. The tiger is free to move into the woods and if it moves in too deep, the elephants don't pursue. The mahouts keep the tourists in check. The tourist safaris are a different kettle of fish though. The guides and drivers are too scared of losing their tip to admonish ill-mannered guests. While that is the reality of today's situation, every tourist in the wild has a responsibility to self regulate.

Last but certainly not the least the forest department needs to relieve the pressure of tourism by creating alternate opportunities for visitors. The buffer zone safari at Tadoba, the promotion of Magadhi and Khitauli in Bandhavgarh, responsible fringe tourism by resorts like Camp Forktail Creek are all steps in the right direction. The tourism industry also needs a fair bit of transparency. The opaque, fax based booking system at Dhikala and Corbett's forest rest houses needs to go. The nexus of the Kosi lodges and the forest booking clerks (read this report) needs to break and make way for responsible tourism. The agent dominated safari booking system at Ranthambhore needs to go - it needs transparency in booking zones and vehicles. The whimsical allotment of prime routes to the tourism mafia needs to stop. The more we can weed out corruption from the wildlife tourism infrastructure in this country, the more accessible we make it to the common man. And after all, we can't save the tiger if the common man doesn't care about it.
"Wildlife tourists carry cameras, not axes. They do not poach, do not submerge forests with dams... They are being unjustifiably blamed for killing tigers." Vishal Singh - TOFT

I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court acts wisely in its decision on the Prayatna case. Tourism when well regulated can be a great tool for conservation. I can't express in words how it has opened my mind and enriched my life. I hope this doesn't remain a privilege I speak of in the past tense. The next generation of Indians deserves to still enjoy our wilderness just as I have in the past few years.
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