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October 17, 2012

Indian Supreme Court Lifts Ban on Tiger Tourism

by Anjana Pasricha

In India, the supreme court has lifted a controversial ban on tiger tourism in the country’s national parks. Conservationists have welcomed the move, saying that tourists posed no threat to the big cat.   

Economic impact

Until a few days ago, Amit Sankhla, was wondering if he would have to shut down the tourist lodges he operates in two sprawling tiger reserves in central Madhya Pradesh state.  His worries followed a supreme court order in July which banned tourists from the country’s 41 tiger reserves. 

But Sankhla finally has reason to cheer. On Tuesday, the top court reversed its order and ruled that visitors could again enter the tiger reserves. Although much business has been lost, he hopes tourists will flock back. 

"Many groups that were coming from UK, from America, from Canada, different places around the world, have canceled," he said. "It will not be until January that we will see bookings coming back to us.”

Ban reversal

The ban on India’s thriving tiger tourism was imposed following a petition by a campaigner who said that tourism should not be allowed in "core" areas or inner parts of the park where tigers breed and hunt. He cited dwindling numbers of the big cat in India.

But the court ban on tiger tourism led to an outcry from prominent conservationists.

India is home to about 1,700 tigers, or nearly half the world’s tiger population.

Poachers are worse ennemies

Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Society of India in New Delhi, says the enemies of the tigers are not tourists but poachers.

"Our huge concern was that if tiger reserves would be left virtually empty, poaching gangs would move in," said Wright. "Tigers, and in fact many animals, as people must have see in Africa as well, get very used to the presence of tourist vehicles and visitors. And, tigers are blasé. They will walk up to a car, sniff the wheel, stand there waiting for a car to cross the road and so on. They pretty much ignore the presence of tourists." 

Thousands of tigers have been lost to poachers - the government says 24 tigers have been killed by hunters this year. Poachers smuggle the tiger parts to countries like China, where they are in big demand.

Tourism boosts convervation

Several wildlife preservationists argue that tourism actually helps the cause of conservation by boosting the economy of villages and giving local populations a stake in the survival of the tiger.

They include people like Sankhla, who say that wildlife tourism employs tens of thousands of people across the country.

"Habitat was very important, that the people around it, the villages around it prosper rather than resorting to things like poaching. The employment level that are there, direct or indirect, within the areas wherever the national parks are, is extremely high," said Sankhla.

However, conservationists say state governments need to regulate tourism and take steps  to protect the buffer zones around the tiger reserves.  

Following the latest controversy, the National Tiger Conservation Authority has announced new guidelines to protect the tiger. Under the new rules, no new tourism infrastructure will be created in what is called the inner area of the park. State governments will have six months to present plans or complying with national guidelines on protecting the tiger.