India’s supreme court has issued has issued a temporary order banning tourism in all core tiger habitats in the country until it meets again to assess whether tigers and tourists can co-exist. The decision will have ramifications for the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Indians whose livelihoods depend on the big cats, not to mention the country’s approximately 1,700 tigers.

India tiger park

Environmentalists and conservationists claim the ban would be a total disaster putting the tigers at greater risk as it’s the presence and the revenue from tourists that protects the reserves from loggers and poachers. The problems, they say, are outside the park gates, not inside them.

The Supreme Court ruling came after an environmentalist petitioned the court to enforce the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act that says tiger reserves should have a core area that only forestry officials enter, surrounded by buffer land that can be visited by tourist vehicles. The claim is that tiger conservation is being adversely affected by mindless tourism. Several Indian states have permitted the construction of hotels and shops inside the tiger reserves and large numbers of vehicles loaded with people are traumatising the endangered species in its critical habitat.

The problem is that both the buffers and the core zones are crammed with people who desperately need work. Before tiger tourism came to the area, they made their living chopping down trees in the tiger reserve and, in some cases, poaching tigers to serve the lucrative Chinese medicine market.

If tourists are not allowed in the core tiger zones, say opponents of the ban, those economies will collapse. Guides will be affected. Mechanics who service the jeeps, the hawkers who sell T-shirts, the hoteliers, the women who make handicrafts.

The court ordered the ban after the majority of states with tiger parks failed to file zoning plans to create the buffers that define the tigers’ territories. Angered by the states’ poor response, the court banned tourism from the core zones until the states complied.

India is home to half the world’s tiger population. According to the latest census released in March 2011 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the current population is estimated at 1,706 – up from 1,411 in 2008, but a long way from the 45,000 tigers which reportedly roamed India 100 years ago.

Tigers are found in 18 Indian states, from the Himalayas in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south and across the north-east into Burma.

An undercover investigation by the Wildlife Protection Society of India and the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2005 revealed that the trade in tiger and leopard body parts in China continues to thrive.

The interim order has hit hard. Many tourist bookings for next season have been cancelled.

The ban will only begin to affect holidaymakers when the peak season for tiger tourism begins in October, and the country’s reserves open their doors.

Source: India Daily News.