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Ecotourism helps boost India’s tigers up 30%

India reported Tuesday that its tigers had increased by 30% over four years, a major conservation success story. The country is home to an estimated 70% of the world’s tigers and while the global total has been declining, India’s population rose from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 presently. The country’s tigers face many pressures stemming from rapid economic development, especially habitat loss and poaching. The upside, however, is that ecotourism is boosting India’s economy and saving this endangered animal, at least, in the process.

Wildlife tourism is still a small portion of overall tourism in India, but it is one of the fastest-growing at about 15% per year. The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests cited several causes for the upswing in tiger numbers, such as the establishment of a Special Tiger Protection Force, and “efforts to control poaching and initiatives to minimize human-animal conflict and encroachment.” Conservation may have a priceless inherent value, but the tangible economic effects that ecotourism bring give it real staying power. Tens of thousands of local jobs are supported, not just as tour guides or in hospitality, but in many associated industries where the largely foreign clientele has shown a demand for local, eco-friendly food, transportation, and services.

In the absence of tiger tourism, these jobs and communities with little alternatives would collapse—as almost happened in July 2012, when the Supreme Court banned all forms of tourism in the tiger-breeding, or “core,” areas of their sanctuaries. While the decision was made to compel the state governments to set up buffer zones around the core areas pursuant to previous legislation, it raised loud opposition from tour operators and conservationists. Besides the drop in tourist bookings and local job losses, the measure would also allow poachers greater maneuverability, free from the scrutiny of tourists and guides. The ban was lifted in less than three months, to great relief, but visitors are restricted to the outer 20% of the formerly forbidden core areas in order to strike a balance between responsible ecotourism and harmful intrusion.

Now different Indian states are vying to boast the largest number of tigers within their boundaries as a way of attracting tourists. Madhya Pradesh’s tourism and culture minister said in late December that losing the formal tag “tiger state” to rival Karnataka after a 2010 wildlife census had affected the state’s tourism sector negatively. But the state is trying hard to win it back, placing tiger conservation in the same league as simultaneous initiatives like improving air connectivity, setting up 16 tourism zones, and other public-private partnerships.

The other key for long-term sustainable tiger conservation encouraged by the government is local public participation in the management of reserves. The Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala is renowned for just that, with 75 “eco development communities” established outside its perimeter. Such committees help with forest protection and generate revenue through other projects during the tourism off season. Expect India’s tigers to keep increasing.

Source: Blouin News

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