India's Supreme Court is examining a proposed measure that could put a large number of tigers off limits to tourists in some of its forest reserves. Tourism advertisements all over India use images of the tiger, India's national animal, to attract visitors.
Now, the Supreme Court is weighing a proposal to ban tiger tourism in areas of India's Madhya Pradesh state. Social activist Ajay Dubey managed to push the proposal all the way to the nation's highest court, saying the big cats need protection.
"The tigers of India are being made to pay for the mindless tourism and their numbers are falling constantly," said Dubey. "There are a lot of incidents where tourists went inside and there have been casualties. This kind of tourism is a curse for the existence of tigers."
Dubey argues that tourists, riding jeeps to get the closest possible look they can, disturb the natural habits of the tigers. He also points to an incident earlier this year in Madhya Pradesh, when a tourist vehicle struck and killed a female tiger, resulting in the eventual death of the two cubs she was trying to protect.
Madhya Pradesh has only six of India's 40 tiger reserves, but a disproportionately high number of the country's tigers live in them. Existing national tiger conservation guidelines declare so-called core areas of a reserve to be "inviolate." Until now, that has been interpreted mainly as a ban on construction and similar disruptive activities. Dubey's proposal would extend the interpretation to make tourism off limits.
Anuradha Mutatkar is legal counsel for the Travel Operators for Tigers India Wildlife Association. She contends that the existing guidelines don't ban tourism, and nor should they.
"It should be interpreted that there should be no development activity inside the national park, inside the core area," said Mutatkar. "And we are not against tiger conservation because what we earn is from tiger conservation."
Belinda Wright, a tiger protection activist, is afraid that this decision would set a bad precedent for tiger reserves nationwide.
"To close the door on all tourism in tiger reserve core areas would be a disaster from many points of view, not the least of which for the tiger because I don't believe that without tourism the tigers can be protected and saved and secured for the future," said Wright.
Many activists find common ground in the opinion that tiger tourism should be better managed in the country, but resist the notion of a tourism ban. Latika Nath Rana holds a doctorate in tiger conservation, and also runs a tiger tourist lodge in Madhya Pradesh. She says there is no scientific evidence to prove that tourism is harmful for the tigers.
"I compared a tourism zone with a non-tourism zone and I was studying this for four years and the benefits of tourism were enormous," she noted. "By the tourists going in for a few hours a day, they are actually becoming the eyes and ears of the public."
Sonsai Baiga, a member of a tribe living near the reserves, performs traditional dances for tourists. He says his dance troupe has entertained tiger-watching visitors for many years. He says this is how we earn they earn their livelihood.
Opponents of a ban say it would erode various livelihood options in reserves, from drivers to tour guides.