As tiger tours in India are curbed, what's the best way to travel?
The danger to the tiger's habitat must be weighed against the benefits to the animals of holidaymakers' income
Tracy McVeigh The Observer, Sunday 2 May 2010
The chances of spotting a Bengal tiger in the wild were reduced dramatically after a decision last week by Indian conservation authorities to phase out tourism in many of its reserves, claiming that the endangered species was being "loved to death" by visitors.
Attacked as a draconian measure that could have the reverse effect by giving the tigers a lower public profile, it unleashed a storm of debate over the pros and cons of "wildlife tourism".
The decline in the tiger's numbers is mostly due to poaching, but Indian officials say habitat damage caused by tourism has reached critical levels. "Seeing a wild tiger has become a kind of status symbol," said MK Ranjitsinh, chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India.
Visitors in open-sided cars or atop elephants in India's 37 tiger reserves are damaging grasslands and scaring off the big cats' prey, added Ranjitsinh. In some parks, hotels built for tiger tourists block the pathways the animals use to travel between territories.
But while unregulated tourism has long been a huge concern for conservationists around the world, wildlife holidays are a growing market. With the help and influence of major animal charities, governments understand the need for regulations to keep the animal attractions alive and the tourists coming. In many places the benefits brought into a community by wildlife tourism are huge. In Zimbabwe only the continuing trickle of wildlife tourists and international support is keeping its remaining elephants, rhinos and giraffes from being slaughtered by a hungry population. And the tourist dollar brought in by Rwanda's mountain gorillas has been almost entirely responsible for rebuilding the country's tourist infrastructure.
Chris Breen, founder of the Wildlife Worldwide holiday company, wrote on the subject: "Wildlife tourism is good. It is good for wildlife, it is good for people, and it is good for the economy… but only if it is conducted in a responsible and sustainable fashion with great sensitivity".