Could designated safari enclosures for tiger spotting take tourist pressure off India's wildlife parks?
India’s tiger population has grown slightly thanks to conservation efforts. But numbers remain fragile. Any path moving forward will have to maintain a balance between tourism growth and protecting our wildlife.
Sighting a tiger in the wild is an unrivalled experience, but not everyone who visits a tiger sanctuary is going to get lucky.
Five of India’s national tiger reserves at Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Kaziranga, Periyar and Corbett offer the option of spotting tigers while sitting on an elephant. But even this requires some amount of luck as tigers spend their time in the thick undergrowth of a reserve, which makes spotting them difficult. It is to facilitate their viewing that the Uttarakhand chief minister TS Rawat has greenlit the setting up of a tiger safari in the Savalde Eco Tourism of Dhela range that falls in the buffer area of the Corbett reserve.
Their plan is to create a fenced, semi-natural area which will house 20 to 25 tigers. Those who have not been able to spot a tiger in the main Dhikala zone or the adjoining areas of Bijrani, Jhirna and Sona Nadi (all located within the Corbett reserve) can come here instead.
Both the Central Zoo Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) have given their approval to this project.
This, NTCA authorities believe, will take the load off the main Dhikala zone. In 2017, the number of visitors to Corbett between June-November (the period when the park is open) was over 3,00,000.
The latest All India Tiger Census of 2015 had counted 240 Royal Bengal tigers in the Corbett reserve.
NTCA officials believe that rather than lose out on the Rs 8 crore revenue that was generated from visitors last year, it makes more sense to divert some of them to the safari area where they will be able to easily spot a tiger. This plan, however, has met with a mixed response from wildlife experts.
The noted conservationist Dr MK Ranjitsinh — author of the acclaimed A Life With Wildlife — is horrified at the prospect. "This idea had been mooted earlier when I was a member of the National Board for Wildlife but some other members and I had shot it down. We refused to give permission for a safari park to come up even in the buffer zone," he said.
"A safari park defeats the very purpose of setting up wildlife sanctuaries. If a tiger is the only animal that visitors want to view, then they should be located near towns and cities. The idea of visiting a park is to have a communion with nature, where if one does not get to view a tiger, one can see a whole range of other animals," Ranjitsinh said, adding in a lighter vein, "We suffer from a Maha Mammal Myopia whose worst manifestation is tiger transfixion. Visitors in our parks have no time for communing with nature, all they want to do is go ogle at these animals."
Ranjitsinh also said, "I am certain the cost of maintaining these safaris will be at the expense of our tiger reserves. The officials will get a chance to spend large budgets and this will prove lucrative for them."
When asked why he should be so critical given that the safari parks of South Africa are rich in wildlife and attract tourists from around the globe, Ranjitsinh points out that the African parks are managed very differently to those in India:
"The parks in South Africa are privately owned and are very large in size. If a cheetah or a lion is a cattle lifter and has to be destroyed, the local person has the right to shoot it. I realise tourism is important but it cannot be allowed to ruin the golden goose. For me there is no difference between a safari park and a zoo," he said.
Dr Ulhas Karanth, a noted biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, seconds this point of view. He insists that we cannot blindly imitate the safaris of South Africa. "South African private safari reserves are 15 or more square kilometers in size and have an extensive habitat. Wild animals live naturally, with predators killing wild prey. We in India do not have the space or land for that model. These forest department 'safaris' are places where artificially fed tigers or lions will be walking around, at huge cost," he said.
Karanth is of the view that we must desist from converting our wildlife reserves into Kumbh Melas.
"Our wildlife parks and a Kumbh Mela are not the same thing... We may have to create long wait lists going back months and try to cut out merry makers, wedding parties and religious pilgrims who visit nature reserves in droves, more for 'entertainment' than with any fascination or love for nature," he said.
Karanth recalled how he shot down a similar proposal for creating a tiger safari at Ranthambore when he was member of the Project Tiger steering committee.
Karanth said, "Having created this absurd model of wildlife tourism — 'everyone must see a tiger in the wild' — officials and the tourism industry are now facing a flood of visitors who come to nature reserves not to enjoy them in full, but just to see a tiger and rush off. Zoos in cities are meant to meet that mass tourism need. Our fragile nature reserves in remote areas that cover less than 4 percent of our land should not be further choked with these 'safari zoos'. They are already choking from excessive tourism and this proposal will not relieve that pressure."
"The message should be loud and clear that no guaranteed seeing of tigers in the wild is possible, and tourists with such needs should visit an urban zoo," Karanth added.
Karanth also believes that budgets for our nature reserve budgets are chanelled in investments that actually diminish the quality of these reserves.
"Unfortunately, there is an increasing tendency in the direction of officials handling larger and larger budgets and creating interventions that are mostly unnecessary or harmful. They do this just to expend these funds rather than ask for smaller budgets," Karanth said.
Not all conservationists accept this point of view.
Tiger expert Belinda Wright, who is the executive director of the Wildlife Society of India, says she supports the concept of tiger safaris as long as they are not located close to reserves. She cites the example of how a male tiger in the Nandan Kanan Forest Reserve, located close to the Nandan Kanan zoo, jumped into the enclosure of a female tigress on two occasions when she was in heat.
"Tiger safaris should be places for disabled, injured, old tigers or man eaters. It is extremely inappropriate to put healthy, breeding tigers in such enclosures," said Wright.
She believes these safaris will go a long way in taking the pressure off the tiger reserves and will be good for those tourists who do not want to spend a lot of money on spotting a big cat.
"These tiger safaris need to be built according to international standards where visitors are restricted to an open space. If this is done, it can prove to be a win-win situation. The visitor safety issue is extremely important because there have been endless examples where people have crossed the line, to their detriment," Wright said.
She recalls an unfortunate incident when, while on a safari, a grandfather once opened the back door of the jeep for his grandson, who needed a loo break. The child was attacked by a big cat, and later died.
Wright emphasised that it was up to the officials to ensure a proposal for a safari area was implemented properly.
India was home to some 40,000 tigers a century ago but habitat loss, poaching and population pressure reduced their numbers to less than 2,000 by 1970. To reverse the decline, India established wildlife sanctuaries that now include more than 600 protected areas along with 50 tiger reserves.
That conservation effort has seen India’s tiger population grow slightly. But numbers remain fragile: a government-estimated 2,226 tigers in 2015 represents 70 percent of the world’s total. Any path moving forward will have to maintain a balance between tourism growth and protecting our wildlife.
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