— After a temporary ban on tourism in India’s tiger reserves was lifted last October, tens of thousands of visitors are flocking to catch a glimpse of the big cat in the country’s sprawling wildlife sanctuaries. In north India, tourism is helping to conserve the endangered species.
The 63-rooms at Riverview Retreat, a resort at Corbett National Park
, are all booked, and jeeps regularly line up in the drive to take visitors for safaris to spot the tiger.
The park is India’s oldest wildlife reserve. It is located in the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand state.
In recent weeks, Pan Singh Bisht, the manager at Riverview Retreat, has been working late in the evening to take care of the large number of visitors.
He says business suffered for 84 days, when the supreme court banned tiger tourism last July. But now the season is in full swing.
The ban came in response to a petition which said visitors were damaging efforts to conserve the tiger, whose numbers have dwindled to about 1,700, at last count.
The ban was lifted after conservationists argued that the reverse was true. They said the real threat to tigers were poachers, not tourists. They say visitors created much-needed jobs for local communities, giving them a vital stake in its survival.
At Corbett, this is corroborated by villagers. Chandan Kumar, 35, works as a waiter in the restaurant at Riverview Retreat. He says his salary supplements the meager family income from his parents’ small farm.
Kumar says he despaired of finding a job after he left school. There was no private industry in the area and he could not get through exams needed to secure the handful of government positions in the nearby town.
Tourism sustains jobs
But today, Corbett National Park has nearly 100 resorts to cater to the steady stream of tourists. They help sustain thousands of jobs from hotel staff to guides, drivers, craftspeople and shopkeepers.
Sanjay Chimwal, a resort wildlife coordinator, grew up in the area and has witnessed a huge change in the way villagers look upon national efforts to conserve the tiger.
About a quarter century ago, as families like Chandan Singh’s grew larger, villagers, dependant solely on farming, were pressing into the forest, squeezing the tiger’s habitat. That brought local populations into conflict with the big cat and other predatory animals.
So when gangs of poachers targeted the tigers to supply the thriving Asian medicine market in tiger parts, local communities were indifferent.
That has changed says Chimwal, as the economy of villages surrounding the park has boomed. The rising prosperity has made them partners in the battle to conserve the species. He says it is impossible to protect the tiger in isolation.
“If you don’t have sympathy of humans, specially of the local community who live with them, you cant really convince them for their protection," he said. "Earlier they were not getting benefit. Their crops were raided. Their animals were killed. So now they see benefit. Now, living standard of people, specially in these areas, has really gone up.”
Wildlife thrive at Corbett
Unlike some tiger reserves where the numbers of the big cat have dwindled sharply, Corbett is one of India’s success stories, with increasing tiger populations.
That does not make it easier to spot the wild ones lurking deep in the forest. Thirty -year-old Harpreet Shergil has come with his friends from New Delhi to Corbett. As his vehicle traversed through dense foliage for four hours, he only managed to spot some elephants, deer and monkeys. The big cat eluded him. Shergil is determined to return and wants to stay in the sanctuaries inner sanctum.
“Did not get to see the tiger. Actually missed it by 15-20 minutes," he said. "I would like to come here again. I am very keen to see the tiger. This time around, I will stay in the core area.”
Need for regulation
There are concerns that tourism needs to be more stringently regulated. The supreme court has asked state governments to limit tourism to 20 percent of the core areas of tiger reserves where big cats are believed to travel, breed and hunt.
The concerns have been triggered by the huge influx of tourists to the reserves in a country where rising incomes are prompting more domestic travel. Wildlife coordinator Sanjay Chiwal says that can constrain the animals.
“Like they say every coin has two sides," he said. "With the boom in tourism, traffic has really gone up and movement of animals has been obstructed.”
Conservationists also say that private resorts at tiger parks like Corbett need to focus more strictly on what authorities call “low-impact tourism.” In a bid to boost business, the resorts at Corbett do not just host visitors wanting to spot tigers, but also corporate conferences and noisy wedding parties, to the dismay of many wildlife enthusiasts.