Should Tourists Be Permitted in India's Tiger Reserves?
India is home to an estimated 1,700 of the world's 3,000 or so tigers. This actually represents a drop in the population since 1972. Now, some are arguing that tourism in reserves is at least partly to blame.
Ajay Dubey, an activist who spent years fighting mining companies in Bhopal, submitted the petition to the courts that resulted in the ruling. "Eighteen-hundred tigers in 1972, right? Now we are having only 1,700 tigers—only 1,700 tigers," Dubey says. "We have to be more careful and sincere for the conservation of the tiger."
The ruling restricts tourism to buffer zones—areas surrounding core conservation zones meant to serve as an interface between protected wildlife and surrounding human populations. Business owners in at least one national park—Ranthambhore—complain the ruiling will destroy their livelihoods. Moreover, they argue that tourism improves the community, too. "Better education, better life, better health care—so the entire area is elevated and becomes better," a park guide told NPR. "You get more awareness; awareness and education lead to better conservation. And nobody can deny that."
Indeed, research has shown that conservation initiatives improve the lives of humans that surround protected areas. Still other research, however, has shown that community buy-in and involvement is essential for conservation initiatives to be successful. Plans that threaten human livelihoods—even if they can potentially protect threatened species—offer a solution that is fragile at best.
Tourism, too, is not clearly the biggest problem in this case. Poaching continues to be an issue in India's national parks and—more significantly—an expanding population is pushing ever harder on the critical buffer zones surrounding the parks. Habitat loss and poaching, though perhaps more ominous for the tigers, are much more difficult to control than the tightly-regulated tourists who were permitted entry in small groups for only a limited amount of time.
Ultimately, the tigers remain indifferent to wandering humans toting cameras, clusters of shops serving tourists, or even park boundaries. For them, the concern is space to roam, the availability of food and water free of pollution, and the peace to live their lives without gross disruption. It's a simple list, but one that humans the world over have failed to satisfy.