Authorities in India have been urged to reject a legal challenge that could result in the banning of tiger safaris across the country.
Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT), which promotes responsible tourism, has said such a ban would threaten the livelihoods of local people and could even hinder efforts to protect the endangered species.
Last year the Indian National Tiger Conservation Authority announced that it wanted to phase out safaris in the country’s 37 tiger reserves, and suggested the animals were being “loved to death” by tourists. The idea was abandoned after protests from travellers and tour operators.
However, the Supreme Court of India is currently considering a public-interest litigation case, which hinges around the interpretation of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. It is argued that the wording of the legislation implies that tourism to all “core” tiger habitats in India should be banned. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks.
“This is a critical ruling for the future of tiger tourism in India,” said Julian Matthews, chairman of TOFT. “Banning tourism from the core areas of tiger reserves is an irresponsible and unnecessary move that will have many negative consequences.
“Tourism in tiger reserves provides an income to thousands of people, many of them local to the area of the reserves. Closing tourism in these core areas will cause the number of people visiting these reserves to drop drastically.”
Mr Matthews suggested that the presence of tourists could help reverse the decline in the number of tigers on the Indian subcontinent, where an estimated 1,400 remain in the wild. He said, however, that a framework of rules to manage safaris was essential.
“There is evidence to show that well-managed tourism can have a positive impact on tiger populations. It can help foster a love of wildlife in common people; and there are hundreds of examples around the world where tourism has been fundamental to successful conservation efforts.”
He said that guides and tourists often provided “extra eyes and ears” in the forest, which deterred poachers and strengthened the accountability of the Indian Forest Department, which manages the national forests.
Mr Matthews cited the disappearance of tigers in two reserves, Sariska and Panna. In both cases the Forest Department denied that the animals were missing from the reserve, and it was the public that raised the alarm. Furthermore, a tigress was killed after being hit by a vehicle at the Bandhavgarh reserve last year. The Forest Department blamed the incident on a tourist vehicle, before evidence emerged that the animal was hit by a vehicle carrying park officers.
TOFT has previously appealed for the introduction of controls to manage tiger safaris in the region, and the establishment of a new authority composed of ecotourism experts to enforce these rules. Mr Matthews said the legal challenge could “galvanise” the industry into addressing the need for change.
Justin Francis, managing director of the agency Responsibletravel.com, said a temporary ban on safaris was the only way of protecting tigers in the long term.
“New lodges are being built in sensitive areas within the reserves, tourist numbers have been allowed to spiral without any real consideration of the impact on tigers, and the story has been one of inexorable decline,” he said. “A short-term ban will allow time to redesign the approach to tiger tourism and re-evaluate the location of lodges so that, in the future, properly regulated and managed tiger tourism can resume