There may be no animal more impressive to see in the wild than the tiger. These regal creatures that once prowled the forests of Asia in the hundreds of thousands are now down to a few thousand, with human encroachment on their habitat putting more pressure on them.
Yet there are wildlife sanctuaries in India and Nepal where tourists can see them despite their dwindling numbers. Tourism brings money into local economies and can contribute to conservation efforts in and around the parks, and can provide a financial incentive to local residents for protecting the animals. But not everyone thinks tourists looking for tigers in wildlife preserves is a good idea.
Indian wildlife officials are now taking a dim view of tiger tourism, and according to reports in the Indian press, have decided to curtail it. They feel the tourists are making the tigers tolerant of humans, and thus more vulnerable to poachers.
Brian Weirum, leader of fund-raising tours to tiger reserves and chairman of The Fund for the Tiger, a California non-profit agency that has put more than $370,000 into the field in India and Nepal in the past 14 years (full disclosure: I am on the board of directors), staunchly defends tiger tourism as a way to help save the tiger rather than as a threat (see below). And Paul Kvinta’s story “Cat Fight: The War on India’s Tigers” in National Geographic Adventure raises serious questions about the competence of India’s wildlife officials.
Who’s right? If you’ve ever seen a tiger in the wild no doubt you will agree with Brian that the right kind of tourism is a good thing. And if we lived in a perfect world, tigers would have ample habitat and protection from poachers so we wouldn’t have to worry about whether our desire to lay eyes on them in their natural surroundings was good or bad. But we don’t, and if left to their own in poorly protected parks, the tigers would most certainly fall to poachers, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Brian Weirum’s defense of tiger tourism:
As the Leader of a Mountain Travel Sobek Save The Tiger trip, I’ve been taking tourists to Bandhavgarh for 15 years on tiger conservation trips. Here are some thoughts on tigers and tourism:
1. Tourism is not killing tigers — poachers, wildlife crime syndicates, and the perpetuation of the myth of the efficacy of tiger medicines thousands of miles away are.
2. The two tiger reserves in India that have lost every single tiger, Sariska and Panna, have had little or no tourism. Bandhavgarh, on the other hand, possibly the most tourist-intense tiger park has it’s tiger population flourishing in the core area. [Admittedly, when a tiger is sighted, it often gets too crowded with vehicles. In 2009 officials restricted the number of vehicles allowed in the core area and have opened up other areas for tourism.]
3. Vehicles driving around with tourists are, in effect, anti-poaching patrols, often in the notable absence of official patrolling. Word of mouth among drivers and guides are an excellent source of keeping tabs on where the tigers are and where they are not.
4. The tourism industry at any of the reserves provides income to countless individuals who might otherwise be tempted to seek money from other sources. The hotel and lodge industry has an immense financial stake in the survival of the tiger. The millions of dollars invested in the lodges surrounding Ranthambhore, Kanha, and Bandhavgarh would dry up overnight if there were no tigers.
5. Tourism could and should be used to fund and support tiger conservation. The Mountain Travel Sobek Save The Tiger trip I lead has taken 146 people into tiger country and generated more than $176,000 which we have been able to put back into the field in India and Nepal for various tiger protection programs.
6. Many people who have seen a tiger in the wild have become fierce tiger advocates and continue to support tiger conservation efforts.
7. There is a good model in Nepal that might be considered for India. A certain percentage of money raised through tourism (park fees, etc.) is available to buffer zone villages. Dr. Bhim Gurung of the University of Minnesota reports that in the Madi Valley (adjacent to Chitwan) positive community management with funding from park revenues has resulted in limiting grazing and logging and the restoration of good tiger habitat. We have initiated such a program in Meghauly village (again adjacent to Chitwan) to increase the capacity of the community forest guards to help the local rangers be the eyes and ears on the health of the forest, in effect unofficial anti-poaching patrols and information gathering sources, and to protect their community forest from illegal harvest of forest projects such as timber and illegal grazing of livestock.