Can tourism save the tiger?
As India's big cats face the growing threat of extinction, Kevin Rushby is both inspired and underwhelmed by its national parks' approaches to conservation
Kevin Rushby The Guardian, Saturday 25 April 2009
We had just regained the path on the far side of the stream when Prasad stopped. So far our tiger hunt has been unsuccessful. A group of Malabar pied hornbills clattered through a tall fruit-bearing tree above us. Further away there was another sound, an urgent and repetitive bark. Prasad used his stick to draw two circles in the dirt around some marks. Neem translated his whispers.
"Leopard tracks - they are about 15 minutes ahead of us. A mother and cub. The barking is the langur monkeys giving warnings."
We went forward. The jungle was tinderbox dry. It was almost impossible to move without snapping a twig under a pile of crackling leaves and there were four of us: myself, two park guides and Neem, naturalist and translator. Through the trees we caught occasional glimpses of the main ridge that makes up Satpura national park, a 1,400-square-kilometre patch of jungle in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. That morning, Neem had told me, I was the only tourist in all those acres of wild forest.
Where the path cleared a little, Prasad pointed out more tracks: "Indian wild dog - very rare animal." And nearby something else: a pile of whitened droppings. "Tiger."
I felt the adrenaline kick through me. In my imagination the thickets around us parted and a massive orange and black killer came hurtling out. An adult royal Bengal tiger can weigh up to 35 stone. It sprints at 50mph. How fast could I climb a tree? My assignment was to investigate whether tourism can benefit tiger conservation, but now I wondered if I was about to increase the tigers' food supply.
It was nonsense, of course. Any tiger that sensed our presence would be quietly moving in the opposite direction. One cannot, however, always be rational about such things.
Neem grinned, as if he guessed my thoughts. "It's old," he said, "A couple of weeks."
Further down the track, Prasad and his partner, Ashish, held a whispered conversation. The warning cries had stopped and so had the leopard tracks. They were trying to second-guess the cats' direction. We moved forward again, cutting through the forest past a pile of white bones, "An old kill - a gaur, or Indian bison."
Then suddenly Prasad crouched down, motioning us to do likewise. There was a whispered conversation and a single glistening drop of liquid on a dry grass blade was pointed out to me. "Indian wild dog. It must be very close."
Prasad slowly raised his head over the line of the undergrowth and I copied. Almost immediately I saw them: a pack of chestnut and white coloured hounds, more like a long-legged fox than a dog, loping directly towards us. In seconds they would be on top of us. I ducked down and got the camera ready.
The dogs, however, had sensed our presence and altered course. All I got was a brief glimpse through the trees to our left, a single adult that had paused briefly to watch us. Then, in a flick of chestnut tails, they were gone.
We stood up and relaxed. "Unbelievable," said Neem, "There were 18 of them - I've never seen so many. Very rare sighting."
I was shocked to find that 40 minutes had passed since encountering the leopard tracks. The concentration had been so intense. And what had we seen? No tigers. No more than a few seconds of a wild dog, but I was buzzing with the adrenaline.
"Breakfast?" Neem suggested. We moved on to some smooth flat-topped boulders, brushed aside a few porcupine poos and sat down. Neem took a lunch box out. "Cucumber sandwich anyone?"
The tiger, as everyone knows, is in deep trouble. From an estimated 40,000 animals in India a century ago, the number is now down to around 1,200. Four sub-species are now extinct. In January 2005 the Sariska national park was forced to admit that all of its supposed 35 tigers had been killed after a group of students from the Wildlife Institute of India searched the park and couldn't find any, an exposé that also uncovered how park officials had been falsely exaggerating tiger numbers for years. Some experts argued that numbers might have fallen below the minimum for a viable population, something that would mean certain extinction in the wild.
The psychological impact of this calamity on conservation work is hard to exaggerate. Project Tiger in India has been one of the world's most energetic and well-funded campaigns, a flagship programme whose failure would spread alarm and despondency.
Things looked up briefly in June 2005 with the arrest of Sansar Chand, the notorious poacher and wildlife product trader who had killed over 1,000 tigers, including the Sariska population. Plans for wildlife corridors between parks also raised hopes that losses could be replenished naturally from more successful areas. However, the panic was reignited this year by the admission that Panna Reserve, also in Madhya Pradesh, had lost all of its estimated 30 animals.
One gleam of hope is that some experts, including Julian Matthews of the charity, Tour Operators for Tigers, feel that the way forward is with eco-tourism in well-managed parks - something along the lines already tried in Africa. If handled correctly, increased visitor numbers, the logic goes, could encourage good practise and ward off poachers.
Now cut away to a week earlier. This time I am in Kanha National Tiger Reserve, again in Madhya Pradesh. Kanha provides visitors with the classic Indian wildlife experience, the one most tour companies offer and the one that usually guarantees a tiger sighting.
At 6am we are in a queue of about 50 jeeps at the park gates, awaiting entry to the "core" zone of the reserve. Most of the vehicles are filled with Indian families, kids excited and chattering, ladies in bright saris. We have passed through the broad "buffer zone" where villagers are allowed to live inside a protected forest. It's also the zone where privately run tourist lodges are springing up in profusion to cater for this explosion in domestic tourism. We pick up our local guide and the gate opens.
Our first objective, like everyone else, is to reach "The Centre". This is the Park HQ within the inner reserve, the area that excludes all humans except park rangers. At the centre you can get the numbered token that entitles you to an elephant ride, should a tiger be located. Once we have that token we can begin to tour Kanha: a delightful rolling landscape of cool forests interspersed with broad grassy meadows dotted with herds of deer.
There is no tracking, however. No one is allowed down from the open-topped jeep and no deviation from the dirt road is permitted. The net result is that the local guide contributes very little, his ground-level knowledge locked away in the front seat of the jeep. These men are usually from the tribal groups that formerly lived within the park and their jobs are the "local employment" that was part of the deal when the government shifted them out. Sitting in a car, without English skills, they are often under-used and bored.
In this situation the naturalist provided by the tourist lodge becomes the key to any understanding for the visitor. These are from a very different background: often college-educated and always English-speaking, they move easily in the luxury hotel environment. Many will become great naturalists, but their knowledge is bookish and vehicle-bound: some have never walked through a jungle in their lives.
At Kanha I was soon locked into my packaged tiger experience. The park elephants and mahouts had located a male tiger. We dashed to the centre and waited for our number to come up. Within an hour I was climbing up on the elephant with one other tourist and strolling through the bush.
The tiger was slumped in a pool of water, lazily watching the elephants come and go with their cargoes of tourists. He did not get up or move; he probably knew better, having got used to this morning ritual: elephants and mahouts kettle him for an hour while the visitors get their pictures. The longer he is kept, the better, as each tourist pays 600 rupees (around £9) for the thrill.
I came away rather unelated. It felt like a zoo.
I put this to Dr H S Pabla, chief wildlife officer for Madhya Pradesh. "But you could walk," he says. "The lodges don't tell anyone, but we have changed the rules and it is possible to walk through the parks - with a guide of course."
He goes on to tell me that Pench national park near Nagpur has a walking trail complete with four observation towers that no one has ever used. Not a single tourist in a 100-square-kilometre area specifically set aside for walking safaris.
"I want people to come and start walking there!" he insists.
The magic formula Pabla and others are seeking is a way to integrate tourism so it energises the conservation, rather than just turn tigers into fairground attractions. My experience at Satpura was the result of work by Hashem Tyabji, a former wildlife warden, who has set up a new lodge, Forsyth, to encourage walking safaris. His use of local guides on walking tours puts the power, and some money, back in their hands. "We plan to start teaching them English," he says, "Communication between tourists and locals is one of the critical issues."
It is at Pench that I finally do get my "genuine" tiger sighting, but it is one that raises other questions in my mind about tourists and big cats.
Pench is one of India's up-and-coming parks: its tigers featured in the BBC documentary series Spy in the Jungle. Close to the big city of Nagpur, it is nevertheless wilder and less-visited - at least if you avoid public holidays and weekends. The local guides are keener here, more ready to offer information. We had barely entered the core zone at 6am when our guide stopped to look at some tiger tracks.
"There is a tigress with cubs who often hunts over this side."
We turned off on a side road and drove slowly along until we heard lemur warning calls. A few seconds later, Dhanya our naturalist hissed an excited warning: a tigress was strolling down towards the road through the forest. This time I felt all the excitement that I had expected. The tigress was wearing a radio collar - one of the individuals that had been filmed as a cub in the BBC series.
The tigress sauntered across the track and was about to re-enter the forest when she stopped. Something had alerted her. She went down on the ground, her hips working to get into a spring position. It was then we saw why. A string of spotted deer, cherval, were strolling through the trees, directly towards the tigress.
When they were just 20 feet from the tiger's jaws, they turned, still oblivious to the danger, and jumped down on the road. One after the other, they trotted across. Last to go was the fawn. The tigress waited. Her tactic would be to attack from behind, leaping on the fawn and biting its neck.
My camera was ready. It was going to be the wildlife moment of a lifetime - for me, if not the fawn. Then the jeep appeared. It was a big party of tourists, heading towards us. Our driver waved at them to stop. Instead they speeded up. I could hear them thinking . . . Are we missing something? Our driver was waving madly. They increased speed. We are definitely missing something!
The deer sprang away in alarm. The tigress relaxed, stood up and sauntered off. Success rates in hunts are never very high for tigers and they don't appear to waste energy on frustration. Unlike us. Our driver lambasted theirs.
I caught a last glimpse of the tigress as she disappeared. From behind the demands of two cubs and the dry season were clear: her body was gaunt and bony. For her, at least, tourism had not helped on this occasion.
Despite this experience, I came away from Pench, Kanha and Satpura cautiously optimistic for the tiger. With large areas of jungle still intact in Madhya Pradesh, and plans for wildlife corridors between parks advancing, there is hope that a new eco-tourist approach will have sufficient animals to work with.