Fifty years after Project Tiger was launched in 1973 to stem the alarming decline in tiger numbers, India has 53 safe zones for these big cats. With two significant tiger-centric events recently—the golden anniversary of Project Tiger, and the results of the 2022 tiger census—all eyes are once again on the undisputed king of the Indian jungle.
According to the latest tiger census, India is home to 3,167 tigers, a marginal increase of 200 since the last count in 2018. Their numbers remain stable, even as the human population has exploded and the pressure upon land and other resources has intensified. The rock bottom figure of 1,411 in 2006 finally pushed the government to renew its efforts to stem both poaching and habitat loss.
Hundreds of unsung heroes have contributed to the success of this conservation programme: guards who live inside and and patrol tiger reserves day and night on foot and on bicycles, guides who try to show eager tiger-seekers the other wonders of the forest, conservationists and wildlife biologists, and finally, responsible owners and managers of ecolodges on the fringes of national parks and tiger reserves, who manage the surging interest in tiger tourism with sustainability in mind.
While there is plenty of irresponsible behaviour in the wildlife tourism industry, overselling destinations and compromising entire landscapes, there are also conservation-oriented wildlife lodge promoters, serving both wildlife and tourism. Their sustainability checklist is long and carefully monitored—low impact on the natural environment, net zero energy consumption, locally sourced food and supplies, staff from the community, minimum wastage and pollution.
Ranthambhore veteran and conservation expert Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh says it is important for the discourse to be about responsible tourism and not just wildlife tourism. “Tourism creates too much pollution, not just in terms of trash generated but also the energy used,” he says. Ranthambore Bagh, the homestay Dicky and his wife Poonam run in Sawai Madhopur, is served almost entirely by rainwater harvesting and solar energy.
Joanna Van Gruisen, who runs The Sarai at Toria with her conservation biologist husband Raghu Chundawat, says eco-lodging is about respecting the wildlife and environment, providing benefit to the communities in which it is operating, while damaging neither.” These hoteliers place emphasis on education, whether it is advising guests to avoid making loud noises, using waste segregation bins or being respectful of their wild surroundings. Van Gruisen notes, “One would hope that those seeking a wildlife experience would appreciate all that comprises a sustainable, responsible property.”
Owner and managing director of Svasara, an eco-lodge located just outside the Kolara Gate at Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Ratika Sinha, stresses the need to “create a conscious ‘tribe’ that includes guests, the local community, tourism professionals and the forest administration,” given how every individual involved in the wildlife tourism cycle contributes either to the protection or destruction of flora and fauna habitats.
At Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow in the Anamalai range of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, Venky Muthiah says that the staff are so used to the wildlife that they just keep calm and carry on even when a gaur enters their tea plantation. Elephants have right of way in this region. Muthiah, whose property has an affiliation with the wildlife conservation non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation, brings up the factor of community inclusion and involvement. Not only are all the workers from the surrounding areas, but they are trained by the non-profit about the local wildlife in order to minimise human-wildlife conflict.
Aly Rashid, director of Jehan Numa Wilderness with ecolodges near Satpura National Park and Bori Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, explains that local communities are often adversely impacted by wildlife conservation efforts that displace them from their hamlets within protected areas. “We employ guides, drivers and staff from the villages so that an ancillary industry gets formed around the tiger reserve, and the same people who used the forest as a natural resource now have alternative income through tourism.”
Van Gruisen describes this as an “inclusive operation where the local communities, rather than being excluded and bearing the cost of the conservation, are active partners and materially benefit from it.”
All this sounds great, but the current reality is the overcrowding at wildlife zones, particularly tiger reserves. This has meant accommodation options springing up without a care for regulations or the land and habitats they are trampling upon. With growing tiger numbers, there is also now a single-minded focus on the tiger, to the exclusion of other fauna and wild flora. Far from being a well-rounded educational experience, taking in the different tree species, bird calls and the symbiotic relationship between the various animals, forest safaris increasingly mean a rushed drive on the search for tigers. “Indeed, there have been recent times when the police had to be called, as visitors violently demanded their entry fee back when they had not seen a tiger,” Van Gruisen exclaims. She also points to hotels around wildlife zones that scramble to make money with other activities, like hosting weddings and weekend parties, defeating the whole point of the secluded setting.
To ease the pressure off tiger-centric tourism, places like Jehan Numa have created alternative nature experiences like guided forest walks, mobile camping and birdwatching trips. Despite the challenges, though, these hoteliers believe that sensible wildlife tourism is the only way forward.