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Can Ecotourism Save Tigers in India?

Photo kindly provided by Clive Wilsher

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Julian Matthews , Chairman.
Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) campaign

Bio: Julian Matthews is founder Chairman on Travel Operators for Tigers, and Managing Director of Nature tour operator Discovery Initiatives, www.discoveryinitiatives.com.

The Travel Operators for Tigers campaign has over 120 Travel companies members involved in all aspects of wildlife tourism in , with the aim of advocating, encouraging and supporting responsible use of wild habitats to preserve ’s remaining forests. www.toftigers.org. Join us if you can help.

The one fact that struck me as the most interesting at a recent lecture by Dr Raghu Chandawat, an imminent Tiger scientist, was that a well known tourism zone of Bandhavgarh Tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh held a greater density of wild tigers than he had ever believed possible in such a small area.

So is tourism really that good at protecting tigers?

The fact is that today, parks with both tigers and tourism hold the greatest density of tigers left in India.

Screaming headlines across the world tell the real story of plummeting wild tiger numbers, with ‘independently verified’ figures now reckoning numbers to be 1300, a collapse of over 40% in just the last ten years. Poaching, revenge killings, Chinese medicine, pelt sales, population and livestock pressures and deforestation are held up as the principle causes.

I believe that tourism is a good thing for tiger conservation. It gives them extraordinary protection through the passive viewing and monitoring of these creatures. Tourism has a significant impact on the perceived status of a park and its ability to attract local, governmental or International funding and tourism enhances the motivation and quality of its rangers and management, whilst the constant vigil and attention from conservationists, naturalist guides, visitors and hotel owners concerned over ‘their’ invaluable wildlife resource, ensures park staff and management are kept on their toes. Where parks fail is when communication, integration and cooperation collapses between any of the parties in this conservation equation.

Historically the Indian Forests Service (IFS), under whose auspices all Indian parks and sanctuaries are managed, has seen tourism as a necessary evil, a harbinger of doom to be boxed up and contained within specific areas, whatever the crush; whatever the consequences. Last Christmas, tourism was even accused of being the reason for the collapse in tiger numbers in Ranthambhore in Rajasthan. Woodcutters cut forests, poachers poach tigers, but tourism cannot be accused of decimating tiger populations!

But all conservationists know that today you has to get village communities actively involved in conservation and benefiting from a National park, because by law villagers can no longer be permitted them to enjoy the sustenance and produce forests once provided, and in some positive way makes these same villagers feel like owners or stakeholders in their forests, providing an alternative livelihood to that of farming, livestock or timber extraction. This is by far the hardest part and is the least well managed at the present time. It’s possible, but it’s a really tough numbers game when parks are often surrounded by a 100,000 villagers.

Today the Travel Operators for Tigers campaign (TOFT), which was founded in 2004 by a large group pf UK Tour Operators, is trying and change this passive role of tourism into a more proactive role. We aim to collectively spread best practice tourism and its indirect and direct revenues, help manage visitors and their experiences more effectively, and use ecotourism’s extraordinary spending power and ability to change local lives and livelihoods to save the forest habitats of .

As Dr Ullas Karanth, of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bangalore, one of ’s most respected conservationists told me, “About 200,000 to 300,000 sq kms of potential Tiger habitat still survives. As it is possible to have 5 to 10 Tigers per 100 sq kms, there is still room for 15000 to 30000 tigers in today.”

Established Tiger Reserves covers just 37761 sq kilometres, of which there are 28 in total, so as little as 12.5% of potential Tiger habitat is protected by government backed funding and skilled staff. Yet even with this protection some Project Tiger reserves have no Tigers, as the Sariska Tiger reserve fiasco identified in 2005. Nevertheless as an amazing 90 National parks and over 482 wildlife sanctuaries, yet probably no more than a dozen national parks and a handful of sanctuaries are visited in any economically beneficial way by tourists.

I believe today, to give ourselves the best chance of saving a specific habitat, we have to place a ‘monetary value on parks that comes close to the cost of maintaining it. Tourism places a value on a wilderness resource, like no other non extractive industry. Infact in wilderness tourism is generating US$12 per acre, while agricultural land gets only US$3 per acre per annum. Furthermore in a developing country like India, its National Parks are almost paid for by tourism, to the tune of 76% of their annual budget. ’s tourism charges and park fees on the other hand make only a single digit dent on the annual Park budgets.

So ecotourism needs to be spread further and wider, opening up greater areas of India’s parks, sanctuaries and reserve forests to responsible and well managed tourism, at the same time as ensuring that poor quality tourism is not allowed, and communities living next to or within forests have a greater stakeholding in their management and the economic benefits that result.

East and Southern Africa has effected such community partnership schemes and managed to rehabilitate and preserve millions of acres, of often marginal and degraded land, back into wildlife conservation. India will have to scale up such schemes and release the shackles of governmental control on forests, through some sort of forest leasing agreement, but if the Government is serious about saving Tigers it is an essential ‘stone that needs turning’.

The economic drivers of such a conservation revolution are already underway with tourism in India contributing 8.6% of GDP and over 51 million jobs, and this permeates through to wildlife tourism too, with local and often well heeled Indian tourists being a couple of hours drive from a major Tiger park! 300 million aspiring middle class Indians with money to burn on their leisure time, and increasing mobile, want to get a photo of a tiger. Already 95% of tourism to parks are Indian visitors and the market is growing at 10 to 15% per annum. Just ten years ago it was 90% foreigners visiting these same parks, so we do not need to worry about the ‘long haul’ carbon footprint of the visitors!

Sadly any new approach needs to happen fast - for time is rapidly running out for the tiger and its remaining forests.

Note: This article has been published with the permission of the Author. This article does not necessarily express the views of www.ecotourdirectory.com

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