India to stop tiger tourism in attempt to prevent species extinction

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India to stop tiger tourism in attempt to prevent species extinction

Rhys Blakely in Mumbai
April 28, 2010

For centuries, the prospect of spotting a Bengal tiger in the wild has been a highlight of visiting India. Now the Government is to end the spectacle amid fears that the species is being “loved to death” by visitors desperate for a glimpse of tigers in the wild.

Tourism is to be phased out in the core regions of the 37 tiger reserves, Rajesh Gopal, the head of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, told The Times. “We should not forget that tiger reserves are primarily for conserving the endangered tiger and tourism is just a secondary outcome,” he said. “Our reserves are small and prone to disturbance caused by tourism. They cannot compete with large African savanna parks, which can stand large number of tourists.”

The Environment Ministry has ordered India’s states to wind down tourism in such areas and to tightly regulate it in surrounding regions where the chance of seeing a tiger is far smaller, Dr Gopal said. People who live in core tiger habitats will be moved.

A count in February 2008 showed that India’s tiger population had plummeted to 1,411 animals, down from 3,642 in 2002. The latest figure is disputed, however. Some experts say that there may be only 800 wild tigers in India today and that the species could be rendered extinct in five years.

According to government officials, the species has already disappeared or is in danger of becoming extinct in 16 reserves. A century ago, when tiger hunting was a favourite pastime of Raj-era dignitaries, there were an estimated 40,000 in India.

The decline is largely due to poaching, but habitat damage caused by tourism has also reached critical levels, experts say. “Seeing a wild tiger has become a kind of status symbol,” M. K. Ranjitsinh, chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, said. “People do not realise the harm to the broader ecosystem. They are loving the tiger to death.”

Tourists, whether in vehicles or on top of elephants, destroy the high grassland in which the big cats hunt, and drive away their prey, Mr Ranjitsinh said. In many parks, lodges have been built in core reserve areas while hotels block the corridors that tigers use to travel from one territory or reserve to another.

Some reserves have been criticised for using radio telemetry systems for tracking tigers for the benefit of tourists. Once found by a mahout — an elephant driver — brandishing an antenna, a single tiger can be hounded by dozens of tourist vehicles.

“The parks’ priorities have become warped,” Mr Ranjitsinh said. The bamboo forests and grassland in Kanha provided inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Experts agree that only radical action can bring back the tiger from the brink of extinction, but add that tourism is only one of several dangers. Poaching to feed Chinese demand for traditional tonics has taken a heavy toll. So too has competition for space between tigers and India’s booming human population.

Jairam Ramesh, the Environment Minister, said this month that unregulated tourism was as much a threat to tiger population as poaching. He said that he would clamp down on “mushrooming luxury resorts around tiger reserves”. He singled out Corbett National Park — named after the British hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett and a favourite destination with Western tourists — as a habitat that had degenerated because of tourism. At least four tigers have died there in the past two months, according to reports.

Tiger facts

— 832 tigers known to have been killed in India from 1994 to 2007

— 1,411 India’s remaining wild tiger population in 2008

— 21 tiger deaths so far in 2010, 10 from natural causes, 11 from poaching

— $5,000 Price paid by traders to poachers for a complete dead tiger

— $50,000 Price paid for a complete tiger at market

— $35,000 Price paid for a tiger skin at market

Sources: WPSI, National Geographic, Business Week India

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