I have just attended a conference in Bhopal that was entitled ‘Tourism: a conservation enabler’, with speakers invited from across the globe to give new perspectives on India’s great conundrum; How to show the few remaining tigers to the millions of people (soon hundreds of millions) who want to see them, without killing the very ‘Goose’ that laid the tiger ‘egg.’
The stark reality is that tigers are fighting a losing battle outside our best protected reserves, while these parks, though increasingly enjoyed by ever growing tourism numbers, are now the key tiger populations from which any notion of increasing their numbers in India must inevitably come. The continued health and feverish replenishment of our best protected park’s own tiger numbers, and the continued observations over many years points to the fact that many of India’s most stable tiger populations exist within the confines of tourism zones. So too some of the oldest, with the the indomitable Machali in Ranthambhore is a case in point, but other tigresses who have extraordinary success at bringing up cubs - overseen daily by hordes of camera totting visitors - are known about in both Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench. One tigress in Pench is on her fourth litter, a total of 16 cubs in only four years! Obviously these daily visitors have failed to affect her obvious fertility and extraordinary success as a mother.
So much of the focus of the event was on how to restore the forests surrounding many of the parks, turning them back into rich, biodiverse forests, packed with wild food for tigers. As one speaker from Africa, Richard Vigne stated, it requires changing a negative perception of the so called ‘costs of conservation’ into recognising that responsible, well planned tourism, can help create a positive cash flow and net conservation gain for a State at the same time as being a catalyst for jobs, enterprise, sustainable development and poverty alleviation.
Delegates recognised that more of the same approach to both park and tourism management is not going to succeed, so the debate raged amongst all the stakeholders as to what sort of change is required in the future and how can this be catalysed and implemented. Responsibility does not just lie with the Forest Departments, but greater partnerships and trust between the public and private sector, as well as NGO’s, scientists and community bodies, must be fostered to ensure a truly wild future for tigers and their fellow creatures, across far larger chunks of restored forest landscape than exist today.
Our common desire to want to see wild tigers should not be the source of their eventual demise, but instead should be the basis of their very salvation.
It’s now time for vision and action – and not another decade of more easily spouted words.