India’s Supreme Court will hear a petition today seeking to ban tourists from breeding grounds in the country’s main tiger reserves amid concerns that their presence is hastening the extinction of the endangered animals.
The plea to bar visitors from tiger breeding areas is supported by the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority, which points to official figures that say the wild- cat population in reserves was 1,706 at the end of 2010. Hotels and tour operators warn that the restrictions would lead to job losses and harm conservation efforts.
“To stop all tourism and throw away the key would be a disaster for local people,” Belinda Wright, the founder and executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, told a briefing today where conservation groups voiced opposition to the petition. “Tourism for all its faults does need to be better managed. But at the same it does give a large degree of protection to tigers.”
India, home to the world’s largest number of wild tigers, is trying to protect the creatures from habitat destruction and poaching that supplies an illegal trade in skins and body parts. Travel Operators for Tigers, a group representing tour groups, says a ban would dent India’s tourism industry, which brings in more than $100 billion in revenue and 17 million overseas visitors annually, according to government figures.
Ajay Dubey, a private citizen who brought the petition to the Supreme Court, wants a tourism ban in so-called core areas of the parks where the tigers breed. Tourists would still be allowed to visit buffer zones on the edges of the parks where the chance of seeing a tiger is smaller.
Conservationists argue that ensuring local people benefit financially from protecting tigers is key to persuading them not to work with poachers or encroach on parks.
India’s human population has expanded by five times in the last 100 years, while the country’s tiger count has fallen from 40,000, according to Last Wilderness, a website that promotes wildlife conservation.
The government started a campaign to protect the animal in 1973 and since then the number of tiger reserves has risen to 39 from three. India’s 2010 tiger population was up 21 percent from 1,411 in 2006, according to a survey published by the Environment Ministry in March.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority spent about 2 billion rupees ($40 million) on conservation efforts in the last financial year. The body, which reports to the Ministry of Environment, says the best way to protect tigers is to keep tourists and villagers out of the parks.
Latika Rana, who has a doctorate from Oxford University on the management of tigers in the wild, said authorities should reduce the number of park visitors rather than imposing a complete ban.
“The Taj Mahal has been affected by tourism but you look at how to manage it rather than banning it,” Rana, who is dubbed the “Tiger Princess” for her conservation work, said at the briefing. “If people don’t see the animals, they won’t see the importance of protecting them. We would be depriving our children and grandchildren the chance to see their heritage.”