The tourism conundrum – An insider responds

Here is an article that I wrote for the Sanctuary magazine:

A few weeks ago, I received a scathing response from a ‘tiger activist’ friend to an article I had posted online about the conservation value of tourism. After blasting my views, he finally stated that what tigers really need is “isolation from the forest department, researchers, scientists, locals, tribals, conservationists, hoteliers and tourists.” While it sounds like the perfect solution to all our problems, we do not live a perfect world. It would be ideal if our biodiversity would be protected for its intrinsic natural value rather than economic benefits but years of petitions and campaigns have still not translated into concrete results, and much of the public is still distanced from conservation. It is high time we consider a broader triple bottom line – market, environment and society. The reality is that tourism is here to stay, whether we like it or not. But the positive aspect of tourism is that it can be made into a winning formula, if we really want it to be, and use it for the advantage of wildlife.


Green bucks
There are few pristine wilderness habitats left in India and the majority of them are surrounded by human habitation. Ranthambhore – a prime tiger reserve – has been described as “an ecological island surrounded by overgrazed pastures and agricultural fields” in the Management Plan of the reserve. Nearly 100 villages surround Ranthambhore National Park and these villagers depend on the park’s resources for their livelihood – fodder for cattle, fuel-wood for their kitchens and minor forest produce for sale. The farmers who own land around the reserve use every possible means to keep wildlife off their fields, including hiring poachers to kill them. The only pro-biodiversity economic activity around Ranthambhore (and most of the Protected Areas in India) is tourism.

Traditionally, the forest department and most conservationists “have seen tourism as a necessary evil with zero conservation value.” Many forest officers and old school conservationists have accused me of the ultimate wildlife crime — of “making money from wildlife.” My answer always remains that I do not make money out of wildlife, — poachers do that. Yes, I make a living but my work supports and sustains the park, its wildlife conservancies, buffer zones and local communities.

Tourism is the only economic activity that values wildlife habitats as ‘economic zones’ and is the only ‘industry’ that pays for biodiverse, standing forests. Tourism is also a very effective anti-poaching unit in many Protected Areas in India, possibly the most effective given the poor track record of patrolling. Consider how few patrolling vehicles we have in most tiger reserves and compare this to the large number of tourist vehicles plying through the tourism zone. Little wonder the tourism zones seem to harbour the highest tiger densities. Dr. Raghu Chundawhat, an imminent tiger scientist, has stated on record that the Tala zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh held a greater density of wild tigers (by far the highest in the world) than he had ever believed possible in such a small area. Of course, the Tala range also happens to support one of the highest tourist densities out of all our tiger reserves.


Tourism, to a large extent, was responsible for the revitalisation of African wildlife. In a developing country like South Africa, wilderness tourism generates US$12 per acre per annum, while agricultural land yields just US$3 per acre. Furthermore its national parks are virtually financed by tourism revenues. Mountain gorillas ‘earn’ $200,000 per annum in permit fees alone Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and the indirect revenue is probably 30 times greater. Living Kenyan elephants will help bring in $1,000,000 in tourism revenue in their lifetimes, while a local poacher will earn less than $300 for the value of elephant ivory.

Let’s move to tigers. What is a tiger worth? The tourism zone of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, which has around 20 tigers, contributes over Rs. one billion – directly and indirectly – to the Indian economy, every year. Of course we have a problem here. Over 40 per cent of this amount never reaches anyone in Ranthambhore and barely three per cent actually goes to the park.

A different kind of wildlife tourism
Sanctuary readers hardly need to be informed that “traditional” wildlife conservation practices in India have failed. This is primarily due to the ‘one size fits all’ approach” of wildlife tourism in our country. Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) – a campaign for responsible use of wild habitats in India sums this up well: “There is a growing recognition that tourism presently available within tiger reserves is often of poor quality in terms of facilities, interpretation and guidance, is ‘one species’ (read tiger) centric, often at loggerheads with park, community and tourism officials and offers little support for local communities.”

We – tourism professionals, including myself – are largely responsible for the mess in which wildlife tourism finds itself in India, but it hardly helps that government’s policies to run counter to what effective and sustainable wildlife tourism needs. Considerable blame must also be apportioned to the unfulfilled promises of major tourism ‘players’ including corporates, travel outfits and hotel chains. Most have adopted a “green” language because that is what travellers now want. But value tourism has not been internalised by them. Wildlife tourism must be built on the premise that it should empower locals, increase awareness and contribute to wildlife conservation.


Ranthambhore is an excellent example of what is wrong with wildlife tourism in India. Spread across nearly 300 sq. km. (50 per cent of which is a tourism zone, which supports most of the park’s tigers), Ranthambhore is encircled by almost 100 villages and three small towns. Yet only five villages and two towns have somehow cornered 90 per cent of all the tourism revenue from this destination. A small ‘cartel’ of hotels, local travel agents, suppliers, shop owners and transporters are earning money, the rest get nothing. Why should they support the park?

Yes, tourism provides some employment to locals, these are ridiculously low-paying jobs. There is more. Of the over 100 guides, 80 per cent have little wildlife knowledge or real training. The hotels are all located along on a short strip between Sawai Madhopur town and the sole entry point to the park, thus concentrating tourism benefits to a tiny fragment of the population.

Alternative tourist options such as hiking, birding and camping are discouraged even outside the park. The entry fees to the park are so low as to constitute a mere five per cent of the budget of most tourists. Meanwhile, the national park is woefully short of funds. To add insult to injury, as of now not a rupee from the entry fees goes towards conserving the park, though technically 75 per cent of these fees are labeled ‘eco development surcharge’.

The list of contradictions and problems is endless and could possibly be applied to almost any Protected Areas (PAs) in India. This is why “a dead tiger is worth more to the local villager than a live one.”

The way forward
Julian Mathews founder of the TOFT campaign, suggests that wildlife tourism in India needs to “provide a much more rewarding holiday experience for visitors, raise the quality of life of local communities, and protect the natural environment.”

So how do we achieve this? To make wildlife tourism an effective conservation tool in India we – conservationists, the government and tourism professionals – must change our own archaic thought processes regarding both tourism and conservation. There are no magical solutions but there are a few things that we can do. Almost all PAs have core zones, which are out of bound for tourists and a buffer area where tourism is permitted. The density of wildlife is much higher in the tourism zone and the core area is rarely monitored. Predictably, most wildlife offences including poaching, cattle grazing and woodcutting take place in the core zone, where offenders have a free run. In Ranthambhore, the poaching incidents that took place between 2003 and 2005 only came to light because poachers started targeting tigers in the tourism zone, after they had wiped out tigers from the inaccessible core. Field biologists and forest officers need to work together to come up with a plan that suggests how tourism in core areas can be turned into a monitoring exercise for a few days each month. The revenue generated could pay for 24×7 patrolling, 365 days a year. This does not mean that the core zone be turned into a ‘free for all’ because wild animals do need the solitude that is often denied when noisy vehicles and tourists enter. But surely it is time now for us to work out sensible ‘tourist carrying capacities’ for park? And no, the current carrying capacity analysis is not going to cut it. Often this constitutes a simplistic formula park managers come up with to arrive at figures stipulated by ‘higher ups’. So we accept 90 vehicles a day as the suggested carrying capacity of the Tala range in Bandhavgarh, while this actually exceeds the carrying capacity of the entire Ranthambhore tourism zone, which is three times the size of the Tala range.

We need to get real about wildlife tourism. Visitors are able and willing to pay much more. In some parks, the fee is even lower than the price of bottled water in a mid-range hotel. And there is nothing wrong with charging special-interest tourists including photographers and birdwatchers more for the privilege of longer, (carefully) supervised excursions and permissions to use hides, or guard outposts.

We should explore the idea of developing a tourism buffer within the forest buffer area. In most parks, for instance, agricultural fields begin right where the forest ends, leading to human-wildlife conflict. If hotels in wildlife areas were only permitted to set up facilities in harmony with the land on just two per cent of their land holdings, they could be persuaded to manage the rest of their land holding with the same strict rules that are implemented within the national park. If this were done, within a few short years, we would have a high biodiversity tourism buffer on the periphery of most parks. This would not only add to the forest area but reduce the tourist pressures at today’s over-crowded entry points. And, of course, ‘tourist cash’ would automatically reach locals.

When it comes to true co-existence between wildlife and humans, there are very few happy stories. One that comes to mind is the relationship between the Rabari and the leopards of Bera and surrounding areas in Rajasthan. This area is known to have one of the the highest density of leopards in the world. The Rabari are a semi-nomadic tribe who roam the lands in and around Bera with their goats and sheep, sharing the same areas with wild leopards. Their value is in their livestock. Any shepherd would think twice about crossing paths with a wily, intelligent cat like a leopard. So what makes the Rabari so comfortable around them? As per folklore told by the Rabari, a saint meditating in the hills was interrupted by a Rabari’s goat. The saint cursed the Rabari, declaring the people and their livestock as quarries of leopards henceforth. The Rabari don’t really seem to mind though. They have a deep respect for the leopards and any livestock picked up by a leopard is seen as an offering to the Gods. While there are very few such happy stories, tourism can male co-existence between wildlife and humans possible in other areas where such co-existence does not exist right now.

So will we see a situation where degraded wildlife habitats next to PAs are leased out to tourism facilities, rather than to paper mills around Tadoba? Or land ‘developers’ and industrialists around Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Periyar, Bandipur and Keoladeo? I hope so, because if this is not done, I believe the noose around the PA network can only tighten, till it throttles the biodiversity that brings in the tourists.

The forest department controls over one-fifth of India’s total land area and the vast majority of these lands are going from bad to worse. The department lacks the resources to revive and nurture them. Leasing them out on very strict terms for wildlife tourism might just be the most effective, least risky way to revive these degraded forests. In the process, according to Sanctuary, local communities and the forest department itself could legitimately earn a sizeable amount from the carbon trading regimes that are currently not able to do much to actually help counter climate change.
The bottom line? Forest and Tourism Departments, the tourism industry itself and local communities need to recognise the benefits of working together on systems and solutions that restore health to our wildernesses. The economic and the ecological health of our nation will improve, poaching will come down and the more popular parks, which are hotbeds of local conflict, could see a wonderful transformation with locals community leaders and tourism professionals taking on the role of ‘wildlife activists’ in India.


The gentleman who is busy photographing the tiger from the ground (which is strictly forbidden in Indian Tiger Reserves), in the above picture, was the Deputy Director of the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Central India. So much for responsible behaviour.