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Tigers & Tourism in India

The writing is on the wall: the majestic, beautiful tiger may be soon destined to feature only in Disney and advertising campaigns. The tiger sits at the apex of the food chain with only one predator – man. Unfortunately, well meaning conservation projects have been established in India without the necessary funds, training, or will to be truly effective. Tireless work by the Wildlife Protection Society of India and Save the Tiger Fund, and others, has been hampered somewhat by political and economic mismanagement or indifference.

By the time an all-India moratorium of tiger shooting was declared in the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, numbers had plummeted from many thousands (40,000 – 100,000 depending on your source! ) in early 20th century to official figures of 3,500 in 2000. Many conservation sources regard even that figure as optimistic.

Tigers need extensive, intact landscapes and act as a ‘umbrella species’. By saving tigers, other plants and animals sharing their ecosystems are also saved, although this is often poor comfort to a penniless farmer whose cattle are being killed!

Often simple demographic pressures have reduced the tiger’s natural habitat. Increasing rural populations have cleared forests for subsistence farming, forcing tigers to turn to domestic kills. Highways and hydro electric schemes built to support an expanding population and modernising economy cut swathes through forests once home to abundant wildlife. This march of progress cannot be halted, but could be compensated.
Yet the greatest evil is poaching, for example the total population in Sariska Tiger Reserve was wiped out by 2005. Skins are prized possessions and the current value of a corpse is upwards from £20,000. Tiger bones fetch £350 a kilo in South Korea and in Taiwan a pair of tiger eyes costs £65. To a poor farmer who simply wishes to stop a tiger from killing his stock, or a family displaced to establish a Reserve it is easy to understand their lack of enthusiasm.

Poaching is large scale, organised and very lucrative. Tiger skins and body parts are all destined for markets outside India’s borders.

In our modern world the tiger is too dangerous, too powerful and too beautiful to be allowed to live freely. Perhaps only responsible tourism can stem the tide. If local populations – to whom the poachers’ money is as good as anyone’s – can be persuaded that a change of attitude could provide an alternative living, there is hope. Let the tiger become a “cash crop”. Near some Reserves, lodges have been established to accommodate tourists, thereby offering regular employment to local people; in catering, domestic work, building, driving, animal conservation and elephant management. Resentment at being resettled, or restricted from entering designated wildlife zones is well diluted when an alternative, comfortable, structured way of life is offered in return.

Shamefully, the largest population of tigers are found in the United States, enclosed in ranches and public and private zoos; possibly another 6,000 as “pets” in Russian and Central Asia.

At 100 lbs heavier than its ‘King of the Jungle’ cat cousin, the tiger is an awesome, unforgettable sight. Usually solitary animals, except for females with cubs, males clearly mark out their own territories, overlapping those of several females.

Experienced guides and trackers operating in the established Wildlife Reserves will lead you to your heart-stopping moment. Prepare for very chilly, teeth chattering morning starts, and bring plenty of patience. Jeeps drive deep into the forest, and in some parts you may transfer to elephant back as the going becomes impenetrable for even a 4-wheel drive.

Rathambore National Park in Rajasthan is currently home to an estimated 35 tigers within its 500 square miles. Much of the action takes place around its lakes where the tiger’s preferred diet of sambar and spotted deer come to drink. Camping will never be the same again with semi-permenant tents near Ranthambore at the delightful Sherbagh or the super-luxurious Aman-i-Khas.

Less visited are the Kanha and Bandhavagarh National Parks in Madhya Pradesh. Kanha is Kipling Country, the setting of the Jungle Book, and has possibly the highest number of tigers (statistics vary wildly from source to source). Radio tracking by rangers helps to locate the ‘lie-up’ positions and elephants help to forge a path through the sal and bamboo forests when the 4-wheel drive admits defeat. An friendly intimate atmosphere awaits at both Shergarh and Anantvan.

Visit in springtime, says a local writer, when the birdsong is sweetest and hear the plaintive whistle of the Indian Cuckoo: when flame trees have burst into their vibrant blossom and at night the flowers of the Manha tree fall, to be gathered by the sloth bears who become drunk on their nectar.

If your travels take you northwards towards the Himalayas you can see your tigers in the Dudhwa and Corbett National Parks. Take time off from trekking the foothills or relaxing at one of the wonderful spas and hotels, and enjoy a tiger whilst you can.