Credit for successful conservation efforts should be shared with visitors
In April, a unique post appeared in the private Facebook group known as “Tigers of India,” where wildlife enthusiasts regularly exchange their experiences within the country’s numerous tiger reserves. Normally, the group is filled with breathtaking photographs featuring the majestic big cats engaged in activities such as hunting, eating, or caring for their cubs.
However, on that particular day, a post featured two close-up images of a tiger’s face along with a message expressing concern about a maggot infestation in an old wound. The photographer had observed signs of the tiger’s discomfort and appealed to group members to assist in relaying this critical information to the forest authorities. Similar to other frequent visitors to the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, the photographer was familiar enough with the tiger to identify it by name.
This serves as an ideal illustration of what Aly Rashid, the director of the Jehan Numa Wilderness hotel chain in the tiger-rich central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, refers to when he characterizes wildlife tourists as the forest’s surveillance system. Rashid explains:
“Numerous Indian forests face a shortage of personnel, so when tourists venture into areas lacking regular patrols, they become the individuals who alert authorities to any anomalies or illicit activities occurring.”
Ranjit Mandal, who collaborates closely with forest authorities in his capacity as the general manager of the Svasara Jungle Lodge in Tadoba, recalls another incident when Maya, a famous tigress, went missing for several days. Maya was renowned for confidently strolling in front of safari vehicles with her young cubs, and her absence triggered concern among tourists. They actively urged forest officials to verify her well-being, and fortunately, she was later found safe and in good health. Mandal emphasizes:
“It is crucial that tourists perceive themselves as active contributors to conservation efforts, as their sense of pride and responsibility encourages them to act as stewards of the forest”.
In April 2023, the census results unveiled that India was home to 3,167 tigers, constituting nearly 75% of the global wild tiger population. However, just fifty years prior, the country’s tiger count had dwindled to 1,827, prompting then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to initiate Project Tiger. Despite facing various challenges along the way, this program is now celebrated as one of the world’s most triumphant species conservation endeavors.
Conservation specialists emphasize the significance of concentrating on tigers. Serving as apex predators, these creatures play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of forest ecosystems by controlling the populations of herbivores. This role is of utmost importance because without tigers, herbivorous animals like deer and antelope would potentially overgraze and deplete forests of their vegetation, ultimately resulting in the degradation and loss of these ecosystems.
Anish Andheria, who serves as the president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Mumbai, explains:
“Preserving the tiger entails safeguarding expansive landscapes and all the organisms residing within, encompassing butterflies, frogs, termites, elephants, as well as the flora and waterways.”
Safeguarding these forest ecosystems is paramount, as they offer indispensable benefits to humanity, including vital contributions to air purification, soil fertility, pollination, seed distribution, and temperature control.
While nations in Asia like Thailand, Malaysia, and China have faced significant challenges in tiger conservation, India has successfully reversed the trajectory of its tiger population, leveraging political determination and conservation funding by capitalizing on the allure of these magnificent creatures. The tiger’s elegance and charisma draw tourists from around the globe, injecting financial resources that benefit local communities and conservation organizations.
The impact of tourism on conservation has been a source of ongoing debate, with numerous experts contending that it can be detrimental to the conservation effort. Critics argue that the presence of humans disrupts natural wildlife habitats and the natural behaviors of animals. Additionally, it is claimed that tigers, when accustomed to human activity, may lose their natural fear and become more vulnerable to poachers as they venture out into the open.
Nonetheless, recent reports indicate that tiger populations are on the rise in regions frequented by tourists. Conservationist Daleep Akoi, who owns Jim’s Jungle Retreat, an eco-friendly wildlife lodge near Jim Corbett National Park in northern India, explains that when tourism increases, it often leads to increased government focus on the park, resulting in improved monitoring and protection measures.
In addition to helping combat poaching, tourists have also taken on the role of citizen scientists, contributing valuable information to the official database on tigers. Mandal enthusiastically recounts an instance where a visitor documented the rare occurrence of an adult tigress caring for another female’s cub and shared this discovery with the forest department.
“It was the first time we learned of such adoption behavior among tigers,” he notes.
While the debate on conservation continues, experts like Akoi emphasize the importance of allowing people to experience the marvels of nature. Such experiences often transform individuals into advocates for forests and wildlife, ultimately contributing to their preservation for future generations.
Andheria concurs, emphasizing that a lack of public interest in tigers may be a contributing factor to the conservation challenges faced by Asian countries with less success in this regard. He questions:
“Why would you care about something you cannot witness?”
Rashid emphasizes the importance of involving local communities in the conservation efforts. When these communities understand the economic advantages of tiger tourism and start to perceive wildlife as valuable assets rather than targets for illegal trade, particularly to China, where they fetch high prices, they have the potential to become protectors of the forests.
Andheria notes that numerous families residing near each national park rely on tiger tourism as a source of income. They are engaged in various roles, including forest officials, hotel personnel, taxi drivers for tourists, safari jeep operators, nature guides, hosts of homestays, and shopkeepers located near the forest entrances. The inhabitants of villages surrounding the protected tiger reserves often enjoy a stable income when tourism thrives, creating a vested interest in safeguarding the forest’s prized inhabitants.
Nonetheless, Akoi, who has witnessed the uncontrolled expansion of lodgings in the delicate forest regions around Jim Corbett, emphasizes the importance of India carefully assessing factors such as the carrying capacity of these landscapes, the architectural design of hotels, the quantity of available rooms, and the materials used for construction. Unregulated tourism can easily deteriorate into the kind of selfie-centered experiences found in certain countries, where tigers are drugged and confined for tourists to interact with and pose alongside, as outlined in a 2016 report by World Animal Protection, a UK-based nonprofit organization dedicated to animal welfare.
Numerous Indian forests have provided evidence that tourism can be effectively regulated while preserving the environment and the welfare of the big cats. In places like Tadoba, strict measures are in place to maintain this balance, including a comprehensive prohibition on mobile phones within the forest area, thus eliminating any possibility of tiger selfies. Safari schedules are determined and enforced by the local forest department, with no room for negotiation. Official drivers and guides face penalties for any lateness or violations of these regulations.
A limited number of vehicles are granted entry to the forest during each safari, and these safaris exclusively follow predetermined routes. To alleviate the impact of jeep safaris within the forest, certain eco-friendly lodges have introduced alternative nature-based activities like guided wilderness walks, boat safaris, and bird-watching trails.
India’s tiger conservation journey, expanding from nine protected reserves in 1973 to the current 53, is a tale of optimism and dedication. Numerous uncelebrated champions, including wildlife officials, forest patrol guards, environmentalists, and conservationists, have contributed to this cause. However, tourists also merit recognition for their role in this endeavor.