Tourists are not the problem
Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has got this one right. He has said that his ministry has no intention to ban tourism in tiger reserves, as demanded by some sections of the environment department. Those in favour of the ban have argued that an increased number of tourists and tourism-related construction was proving to be disastrous for tigers and their habitat, resulting in dwindling numbers. This is a flawed argument.
Indeed, the only way to save the tiger is to ensure that the economic
value of a live tiger is much higher than the profit to be made from killing it for body parts. This can be done primarily by making tigers and tiger reserves a tourist draw.
The worrying fall in the number of tigers in India - which stands at around 1,400 - has little to do with tourists. This has happened because of poaching and encroachment of the tiger habitat. These are the real issues that need to be tackled. Our ill-equipped and poorly paid forest guards are fighting an uphill battle against poachers. Besides, forest conservation laws are regularly flouted.
All over the world tourists flock to see animals in their natural habitat without any adverse impact. Indeed, the money from tourism is funnelled back to protecting the animals. In India, some of the mostvisited national parks such as Corbett also have the highest number of tigers. However, no one is arguing that tourism
in national parks should be unregulated. Tourists in tiger reserves must be accompanied by trained guides. Tourism-related infrastructure should not be allowed inside the core area of national parks and activities in wildlife resorts must be strictly regulated.
The Indian tiger is in dire straits. The only way to save it is to highlight how precious it is. Encouraging more tourists to tiger reserves will only help this cause.
Survival is the priority
So, the lid's been put on the tiger tourism fracas. Official talk about turning ecologically sensitive tiger reserves into no-go zones irked the tourism lobby. That lobby's won this round. None of this alters the fact unregulated wildlife tourism is a migraine for conservationists the world over. Yes, we love to look at untamed animals; if we can be billed for it, it's a business to boost like any other. Only, right now, there's a bigger priority: staving off tiger extinction. Just about 1,400 remain in natural habitats. Who knows how many will go the Sariska and Panna way?
Tiger tourism, some say, can be micro-managed. But if it's been a neardisaster till now, what's the chance we'll change stripes? We all know the scandal of hotels and lodges being built on tiger corridors, damaging grasslands and causing loss of precious habitat. We all know unsupervised tourists turned picnickers and wedding guests harass the big cats and disperse their prey. As for tourism as a tool against poaching, law enforcers must net poachers anyway. If anything, serious issues like poaching and encroachment risk getting obscured in the wildlife tourism spat.
It's argued that tiger protection needs money, and foreign tourists especially bring top dollars. That's sophistry drawing on economic reductionism to give animals their due. It's like saying non-human species have a ‘right' to exist only if bred for food or fur, hunted for sport or shackled in zoos and amusement parks. Without ‘value' extraction, who'd care for crocs or dolphins? Here's the counter-argument. Species need conserving for their intrinsic worth. They have a life, a subjectivity and a purpose that are irreducible and inalienable. So, their ‘value' doesn't depend on how many of us will pay to exploit them.