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Tourists aren’t the villains


FRINGE BENEFITS: Tourism has led to better infrastructure, more jobs and services in surrounding areas

Can a tigress in Ranthambhore generate direct revenue of over $100 million for the area in 12 years? Yes, says a conservationist who is all for nature tourism in tiger habitats.

Unbelievable. Banning tourism?" David Houghton, director of the National Wildlife Refuges in the US said to me. "Why?" he asked me, "I thought poachers were killing tigers, not tourists. " He's right. But not if you were to believe the the environment ministry (MoEF) over the last few years.

Paradoxically, when Project Tiger (now NTCA), was set up in 1973, it was modelled on America's own Park Services, to protect tigers and to allow its citizens to learn, connect, and enjoy recreation.

The present hiatus has been brought on by one petitioner, whose action in the Supreme Court could banish a whole nation from experiencing their precious natural heritage. Nowhere else in the democratic world could an individual's actions, backed by government, be allowed to deprive its citizens of access to its own wilderness, with such blatant disregard of the unequivocal facts, so little evidence, and zero science to support it.

As India's economy expands, many now seek time away from rapid urbanisation. Thus, a fledging nature tourism industry has seen double digit growth over the last decade. New parks that nobody had even heard of (or cared about) a few years ago can be visited and enjoyed for the very first time. Latest figures suggest that nearly 2 million visits are made into India's most popular parks, 80 per cent of these by its own people. Unlike safari destinations in Africa, this domestic demand is infinitely more sustainable as a nature education tool, for sustaining local livelihoods and conservation revenues.

The wildlife tourism sector has brought opportunity and investment to some of India's most marginalised and neglected rural communities. Where once wildlife was simply regarded as a pest, local farmers have now found their bordering lands a source of wealth and opportunity. Regular jobs now exist, decreasing youth migration to the nearest cities for minimum wage and stemming dangerous insurgency problems. Many schools and hospitals have improved thanks to increasing support from lodges and visitors. Infrastructure has been upgraded, giving people better bus services and routes to market their produce. New services have arrived, and new opportunities opened up for guides, vehicle owners and shopkeepers. The media are galvanised, politicians visit and forest staff have become more accountable for their actions and better equipped. Like any other industry, nature tourism could never employ everyone, it certainly won't compensate everyone, it's not a panacea for other systemic failures in management, and it's not a silver bullet - but it's working as part of India's conservation toolkit.

In Madhya Pradesh, the park fee revenue now eclipses the overall funds given by the Centre and the state to manage parks. With added taxes, nature travel is now economically viable and contributes hugely to the costs of supporting wild tigers and local communities. My TOFT campaign calculated that a single tigress in Ranthambhore had generated direct revenue of over $100 million for the area in her last 12 years of life.

The Prakratik Society, next to Ranthambhore reserve, runs two hospitals with over 90, 000 patients a year, a high school offering bursaries for poor local kids, dairy development, as well as Tigerwatch, a charity that keeps an eye on poachers. Its founder, Goverdhan Singh Rathore, says, 'If it wasn't for visitors' donations, and my lodge earnings, none of this would exist. ' Yet, this new sector has been treated like an illegal, dirty, smoke stack industry by the government.

A 2010 study by Dr Krithi Karanth showed 97 per cent of commercial tourism development is happening on marginal farmland or privately owned revenue lands outside of park borders (the other 3 per cent is largely government-run ). Many of the best lodge owners are restoring this marginal farmland back to its original habitat, raising the water table, employ up to 95 per cent locals, and have replanted whole forests.

The worst excesses of tourism, like Corbett's Kosi river corridor, happen where there is no proper land planning or monitoring. But this is the government's job to control. India's 1970s environmental laws desperately need updating to reflect the new reality.

A lot of the current debate centres on Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs). These CTHs were rapidly legislated for in 2007 to counteract the perceived threats to Protected Areas (PA) of the Forest Rights Act. The NTCA quickly designated all the PAs 'inviolate' of human disturbance. Making tiger habitats 'inviolate' was about protecting land from the consequences of hundreds of village communities still living within protected areas, and not to stop visitors from enjoying their own nature heritage. Now CTHs have been manipulated to bang tourism over the head with a big stick.

The 2011 tiger census highlights the fundamental reality. The most visited tiger reserves in India, including Kaziranga, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore, have the highest tiger densities in the country, with the much maligned Corbett with its 200, 000 plus visitors per year, proving to have an astounding 22 tigers per 100 square km. Recent research in Pench says tourism has no detrimental effect on tigers. How does this clear fact square with the wildlife authority's current "tourism disturbs tigers" rhetoric?

Thirty years ago, nobody saw tigers. They lived wholly nocturnal lives, wary of human interference. A few still do in 97 per cent of what remains of India's unprotected forests. Today, most tigers in tourism zones are diurnal, comfortable with visitors and visible park protection. The millions of photos on the web and in print testify to their daily habits and love lives. Probably between 5 to 25 per cent of a park's tiger population are seen by visitors, the rest are never or rarely seen. It's the 'invisible' tigers that are always killed. Poachers, woodchoppers and illegal grazers all state that they avoid entering tourism zones - it has too many people and vehicles. Monsoons are best for them, when nobody is around.

There is no doubt that the way tourism has developed has been unplanned, often unjust and sometimes poorly executed. It needs better planning and regulation, but banning tourism in CTHs is equivalent to using a weapon of mass destruction to crack a small nut in India's large arsenal of environmental hazards. What we need is better land-use planning and controls outside of our most visited parks, not draconian laws stopping visitors from enjoying the best protected wildlands.

Hopefully, with the recent U-turn by the MOEF in the Supreme Court we can finally all work together for a common future, avoiding the kind of one management style, heavy-handed policy making approach that has so polarised the conservation fraternity, and more crucially affected the focus on ensuring the survival of tigers into the future.

Julian Matthews has been Chairman of the Travel Operators for Tigers India Wildlife Association in Delhi for 10 years.

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