Can tigers and tourists co-exist? The debate is rumbling through India where the Supreme Court has temporarily banned tourism in the core areas of the country’s 41 tiger reserves. The unexpected and controversial ruling is aimed at protecting the last of India’s 1,700 tigers.
The moon hangs fat and milky over Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, part of a sprawling tiger reserve. Big game hunters trod these forests up until the late 1960s. Today, spotting one of India’s big cats — a tiger or the more elusive leopard – inside the park is forbidden.
We maneuver our van beside the outer wall. Headlights trained on the brick boundary, we draw a collective breath.
Straight ahead of us under the moonlight, undistributed by the noise of trucks is this beautiful male leopard. Now he’s moving his huge head in our direction but he’s not about to jump anywhere.
“No, its not,” says guide Balendu Singh. “It’s perfectly comfortable sitting here while we have a vehicle sitting about 40 yards away from him. And it’s perfectly at ease. Plus it’s a good perch for him to sit and observe a stray dog or something walking by.”
“Dinner,” I ask.
“Dinner, that’s right,” Singh says.
This forest once teemed with the leopard’s cousin: the tiger. But this former hunting ground of the Maharajas has just 52 of the big cats today.
The forests of the Ranthambore Park, southwest of Delhi, are dotted with the remnants of India’s past glories. A mile inside, and still open to visitors, looms the thousand year old Ranthambhore Fort.
Scavenging monkeys and families feeding them crowd the fort’s ramparts and tombs. Below broad valleys of deciduous forests and expanses of water make up the tiger reserve.
Touring the fort, field biologist Dharmendra Khandal says 20 percent of the land inhabited by Indian tigers has been lost in the last six years to increasing demands for land by an ever-growing population.
“And most of that is agriculture,” I ask.
“Most of that is agriculture and some of them are under mining,” Khandal says.
“Mining,” I ask.
“Big mining people, big mining industries,” he answers.
“In the last 12 years I’ve been actively working for environmental issues and good governance,” says Ajay Dubey, the Supreme Court petitioner behind the ban on tourists entering core areas of tiger reserves.
The 37-year-old activist from Bhopal who waged successful campaigns against India’s powerful mining interests, is now rattling the cage of tiger tourism and some of the more prominent conservationists.
Dubey says “mindless tourism’ has adversely affected the big cat, and that human activity should be restricted to “buffer” areas of tiger habitats to stop the decline of the tigers.
“Eighteen hundred tigers in 1972. Right? Now we are having only 1,700 tigers — only 1,700 tigers. We have to be more careful and sincere for the conservation of the tiger.”Dubey says.
Some wildlife experts agree that tourists damage the natural habitat. Others say they act as watchdogs against poachers and lax forestry officials.
Balendu Singh, a local hotelier and wildlife enthusiast, is opposed to the tourism ban. He says entry into Ranthambhore is already strictly regulated with a total of 520 guests allowed in for a limited time.
“We have three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon: A total of six hours in a day,” he says.
Moreover, Singh says a permanent ban would be disastrous for the local economy.
The court’s decision on whether to extend its ban will affect thousands of Indians — including drivers, cooks, guides and luggage bearers at train stations. Their livelihoods depend on tourism.
Tourism that businessmen Balendu Singh says only raises the local standard of living.
“Which will include better education, better life, better health care. So the entire area is elevated and becomes better. You get more awareness; Awareness and education lead to better conservation. And nobody can deny that,” Singh says.
Many conservationists agree that poachers are a bigger danger to tigers than tourists. Like the ivory of elephants, the bones and bodies parts of tigers are poached for enormous sums. But the regulations governing tourism are the controversy at the moment.
India’s Wildlife Protection Act states that core areas of tiger reserves are “inviolate.” The Supreme Court is expected to shed light on what that means when it hears arguments on the tourism ban Thursday.