Tigers for Tourists

Protection of tigers in India reached a peak in the late 1980s before deteriorating. According to leading conservationists, both tiger and leopard populations are now nearing extinction levels, despite claims to the contrary by the Indian government.

Poaching and human encroachment threatens Indian tigers.© Stephanie Sears

"I believe this is the worst it’s ever been for tigers in India," says the conservationist Valmik Thapar. "We have tried everything," adds Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Poaching is worse during monsoon season when parks are closed, and smuggling [parts] into China and Tibet continues to increase." Poachers sell tiger parts, which could fetch $10,000 or more, for use in traditional medicine.

Preserving tiger populations in India’s parks has been derailed by a ballooning human population and the lack of a clear management policy. Tigers are ecological stars for tourists and a rising Indian middle class. Others view the animals as a recreational asset in the history of Indian sport. As late as the early 20th century, hunters shot tigers from the backs of elephants in elaborate safaris called "shikars."

India has four tiger reserves, but all is not well within them. With its 168 square miles and well-oiled management, Bhandavgarh Park gives the impression of a five-star residence for animals. Its small size, high concentration of tigers (56), and its active tracking of the cats by radio-equipped, elephant-riding forest guards allow visitors to see tigers at remarkably close range. Yet when besieged by cars full of noisy enthusiasts, Bhandavgarh begins to look like an amusement park where animals, grown tolerant of vehicles and crowds, perform for the crowds.

Corbett Park on the other hand, with its 819 square miles of reserve forest, has an air of majesty and mystery protected by park management. Mohan Lal Sherma, assistant manager of the state-owned park, says, "Bhandavgargh may have the highest concentration of wild tigers in the world."

Panna and Ranthambore Park give the impression of coasting on their former reputations. When asked about the 337-square-mile Panna Park, Thapar says, "It used to be a jewel, it has become a disaster." To sustain tourism, park officials boast of 35 tigers and 66 leopards. More realistic estimations taking poaching into account grant the park five to 10 tigers and nine or 10 leopards.

A thriving tiger population made the 152-square-mile Ranthambore Park famous at the end of the 1980s. A renowned Indian wildlife expert remembers seeing 16 different tigers in one day. But an estimated 20 tigers have disappeared since the early 1990s, and there are now only 25 or 26.

In two years, India has lost thousands of square miles of forest, of which 14 are potential tiger habitat. And a number of parks are islands where the risk of inbreeding may lead to extinction. Management policies—dictated by the revenue that attends frequent big cat sightings—have shortchanged the animals" best interests.

Tigers in India’s parks are becoming mere products, as they’re seen by poachers and buyers of skins and other body parts.