Wildlife Tourism in India has always been a controversial matter. In 2010, a Public Interest Litigation was filed by tiger activist Ajay Dubey, claiming that the industry was becoming unsustainable and exploitative. As per the 2006 Amendment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, “critical Tiger and wildlife habitats” must be inviolate for the vital growth of tiger populations. Any form of human activity was deemed a threat to Tiger conservation. It was on this basis that, on the 24th of July 2012, the Supreme Court ordered a temporary ban on tourism in the core zone of Tiger reserves. The ban stirred significant debate amongst conservationists.
More about the wildlife tourism ban
The underlying principle of the order was questionable. Tiger populations grew remarkably in reserves such as Kahna, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore, despite substantial amounts of wildlife tourism. Contrastingly, Tiger populations in less popular Protected Areas, such as Buxa and Palamu Tiger Reserve, have depleted immensely despite a lack of tourism. Associating wildlife tourism to the depletion of Tiger populations remains a baseless claim.
The Supreme Court hoped that the ban would instigate the establishment of buffer zones in Protect Areas for wildlife tourism, in accordance with the November 2011 NTCA guidelines. However, despite the Supreme Court mandate, numerous states were reluctant to comply with the guidelines. Tourism in buffer zones was not the most practical alternative. These regions are used extensively by bordering villages for cattle grazing and the collection of forest produce. Habitat degradation would lead to inferior wildlife sightings, hence attenuating the attractiveness of wildlife safaris.
Fortunately the MoEFCC and NTCA redrafted guidelines, allowing for wildlife tourism in up to 20% of the critical Tiger habitat of a reserve. The revised guidelines encouraged states to form their own ecotourism policies. Following this, on the 16th of October 2012, the Supreme Court allowed for the recommencement of tourism in core areas
Are there any benefits of wildlife tourism?
There are numerous benefits to wildlife tourism, particularly for the local communities. Following proper practices, ecotourism brings substantial economic benefits. With over 1 million people visiting tiger reserves annually, a lot of revenue is generated in the form of entry fees, guide salary, lodge bookings amongst others. This provides significant employment opportunities for the local communities and has ripple effects as locals will associate a monetary value with wildlife. This would increase the general acceptance of wildlife, hence reducing human-wildlife conflict. Furthermore, this would prevent locals from turning to game hunting for sustenance. Entry fees would also provide the Forest Department with much required funding for conservation works! It is estimated that in the Fiscal Year of 2019, wildlife tourism in Madhya Pradesh attracted nearly 2 million visitors, generating 27 crore rupees. An organization, TOFTigers, estimated that nearly a quarter of the state’s Forest Department Budget consists of park entry fees in 2017. Moreover, the industry generated an additional 2,500 full time jobs out of which 82% were given to locals. With the industry growing at a healthy 15% annually, local economies stand to benefit immensely, particularly in the North East where the wild wonders are relatively unexplored.
Tourism also has a plethora of benefits in the management of the reserve. With the Forest Departments heavily under resources and understaffed, patrolling Protected Areas is a daunting task. Parks certainly benefit from watchful tourists. Detection of forest fires, illegal activities and injured animals improves with the participation of tourists. In fact, with the development of citizen science software, tourists can contribute even further towards wildlife research. It is no surprise therefore, that within 6 weeks of wildlife tourism shutting down due to the pandemic in 2020, the cases of poaching increased by 151% across India.
Unethical Practices Cloud wildlife tourism
However, in the past, there have been concerns regarding whether the economic benefits of wildlife tourism actually reach local communities. Wildlife tourism may also lead to some atrocious practices. For example, both captive elephants, and dancing bears, undergo immense torture while being trained for tourist purposes. Similarly, Kopi Luwark, the world’s most expensive coffee, is a major attraction in Indonesia. However, most people are oblivious to the fact that it sponsors the illegal wildlife trade. Snake charming also is equally diastorous.
Unruly visitors are not avoidable
Enforcement of rules and regulation also remains a dark spot in the wildlife industry. I personally have witnessed numerous accounts of wildlife harassment. Unruly tourists littering, wearing excessively bright colours and making excessive noise has made a few safaris unpleasant. Furthermore, in the lure of tips, guides are often overly enthusiastic during a safari. A critical protocol which is frequently ignored during a direct sighting is the minimum distance requirement between two jeeps. Though legally, animals have the right of way in forest roads, this behaviour by jeeps often obstructs their paths and causes distress to the animals. I witnessed this with the dominant male Rudra in Tadoba Tiger Reserve in October 2020 and in my first visit to the park in 2017, where a jeep did some off-roading to show the guests tiger cubs feeding on a kill. Not only did the family flee, the jeeps shamelessly continued chasing them off-roading. Littering is also a prominent issue. On the same trip, I visited the Tipeshwar Tiger Reserve where visitors, despite being confronted by both forest staff and guests, continued to litter in the park. I can name plenty of such personal anecdotes from forests all over India! Seeing the popular tiger of the park overwhelms tourist and guide alike!
The impact of such behaviour has had an observed impact on wildlife. Tigers and other wildlife of popular parks are far more accustomed to jeeps than in the smaller reserves. Despite this, tigers do witness increased stress levels. This is proved by a study of 341 samples of tiger scats by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Park. The study found that tigers had higher concentrations of the stress hormone, faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGCM), during the tourism season than prior.
This behaviour could be rectified by improved education. While an underlying purpose of ecotourism is education, only 30% of India’s Protected Areas have visitor orientation centres. Private lodges also are not very proactive in the field.
Wildlife tourism has to become more sustainable
Another issue with wildlife tourism is that lodges are not truly eco-friendly. A nationwide study of 10 of India’s major wildlife tourist destinations was alarming. 85% of tourist facilities were within 5km of the park. 93% of the lodges used local wood while the dependency on local borewells varied from 40% to 100%. Swimming pools in the lodges of Central India prove costly for local communities in the dry summer months. The fragile ecosystem of Ladakh is witnessing widespread decimation in recent years due to scores of tourists flocking to the state following the release of the movie “3 Idiots”.
The same study found that in the 10 parks, 95% of the revenue went to private operators. Only 4.5% and 0.5% went to the park and locals respectively. In fact, only 0.001% of the locals within a 10km buffer of PA were employed. This accentuates the fallacies of India’s wildlife industries!
Larger mammals steal the limelight
Although only 10% of India’s 500 Protected Areas are Tiger Reserves, they account for 32% of wildlife tourism. Spotting charismatic species such as Tigers, Elephants, Rhinos and Lions still remains the sole interest for most visitors. Much of India’s natural beauties are unheard of by the general public. This is in sharp contrast with countries such as Australia, US, South Africa and Europe. Unlike India, ecotourism is not limited to safaris solely. These countries offer a wide array of sustainable activities across their natural landscapes including bird watching, camping, adventure sports, and natural history museums. Although it is essential to not damage the natural ecosystem, the ecotourism industry in India could be further developed. In fact, developing more activities in the lesser known parks could help distribute tourism more evenly across the country. There is much scope to expand. India could also adopt a private-public partnership in a few regions, much like the Private Game Reserves of South Africa!
All in all, the wildlife tourism industry is still fairly young and has much growth left. It has various benefits to wildlife but there are many issues for India to iron out such that the industry can bolster conservation efforts.
This article was first published on Think Wildlife Foundation.
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