Tiger expert Valmik Thapar’s call for a review of the Union environment ministry’s guidelines recommending a ban on tiger tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves is sensible. There’s no denying the fact that the tiger population in the country is precarious. Massive efforts are needed to crack down on poaching and boost tiger numbers. However, tiger tourism isn’t incompatible with this aim. In fact, sealing off core areas of tiger reserves would curb accountability, lead to unemployment among locals and create fertile grounds for poaching. If tiger numbers have seen a small rise from 1,400 to 1,700 since 2008, it’s because of smarter conservation efforts, of which tiger tourism is an integral part.
The main threat to the tiger population is from the illegal trade in tiger parts. Tiger bones, skin, teeth, claws, etc valued at millions of dollars are smuggled worldwide through an insidious network over which no single authority can exercise jurisdiction. In such a scenario, the only way to curb this illegal trade is to educate people about conservation efforts. This is where tiger tourism comes in. Conducted in the proper way, it can sensitise the public about the threat to tigers from adverse human activities. Meanwhile, by employing locals, tiger tourism can make them valuable stakeholders in conservation efforts – it becomes their interest to protect tiger habitats to ensure the viability of tourism activities.
On the other hand, banning tourism in core areas would greatly reduce interest in tiger tourism and diminish the economic viability of the reserves. This would make it far easier for poachers to infiltrate the reserves by co-opting the forest rangers. The experience in African countries too has shown that ecotourism is critical to conservation efforts. Instead of completely banning tourism in core tiger areas, the focus must shift to sensitive tourism that complements tiger conservation policies.