A recent New York Times piece declared what many already know to be true: “India’s tigers are in danger.” The article goes on to describe a current issue within tiger conservation regarding environmental laws protecting tiger preserves — in the name of economic expansion, tiger habitats, thus tiger populations, face the threat of development.
The article notes that “[v]ast amounts of money and effort have been spent protecting the country’s tigers, with legions of rangers risking their lives. Safeguarding tigers has had far-reaching benefits. The forests they inhabit act as huge carbon vaults, provide buffers from flooding, clean the air and purify drinking water for millions of people.” Ultimately, the writer argues that sacrificing habitat for housing (and the like) will result in alarming consequences: “denuded land, polluted air, scarce, filthy water, ill health and the loss of its mighty national animal, the tiger.”
An animal that elicits fascination, awe, and wonder, the tiger is a focal point of conservation and wildlife tourism — though the latter can either be responsible or irresponsible.
There are varying viewpoints about the efficacy and ethics surrounding wildlife tourism. Depending on the situation, it exploits wildlife; on the other hand, it can be a viable avenue for raising awareness, protecting fragile populations, and for rehabilitating species. As Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) puts it, “Well conceived, well planned and well managed tourism is a critical tool in wildlife conservation, rural and community development and sustainable livelihoods.”
But how does one delineate between “well managed” tourism and irresponsible wildlife tourism practices? Read on to find out.
Issues & Irresponsibility Surrounding Tiger Tourism
Oftentimes tiger tourism involves a typical safari excursion setup: ideally, going into the wild to respectfully observe tigers in their natural habitat. This setup can be problematic, though, when lodging and safari vehicles crowd the already limited space tigers inhabit.
Even worse is when tiger tourism involves unethical practices like breeding and human-animal interaction.
In a recent interview, Susan Bass of Big Cat Rescue explained some of the key issues surrounding unethical tiger tourism:
“The primary drivers of so-called tiger tourism are the numerous places around the world that continually breed captive tigers in order to produce cubs. The cubs are then snatched away from the mother tigers at just a couple days old and bottle fed to ‘socialize’ them with people. Then they are used and exploited by the breeder, or sometimes a separate exhibitor, in what we call ‘pay to play’ schemes. Because cubs quickly become too large and dangerous for the public to have direct contact (usually at about 12 weeks), the exhibitors need a constant supply of new cubs born to stay in business. The once-lucrative money-making cubs are now a huge liability.”
Once tiger cubs age, owners are saddled with the issue of how to rid themselves of adolescent and adult tigers, usually giving them away to unqualified people or to roadside zoos, according to Bass. She notes that, while Big Cat Rescue can’t prove it, they believe some tigers are euthanized, while others are sold to canned hunt facilities, and others are killed for their parts all over the world.
Responsible Tiger Tourism
In light of this information, how can travelers responsibly interact with tigers?
Once again, Bass is clear: “There is no way for travelers to responsibly interact with tigers and other big cats. They are alpha predators and deserve to be left alone in the wild. Breeding captive tigers is cruel and abusive in that they will never be released into the wild.”
Brad Nahill, Director and Co-Founder of SEEtheWild, explores this question in detail in a column he wrote for National Geographic, drawing an interesting comparison between sea turtles and tigers and the use of tourism as a form of endangered species protection. One of his most salient conclusions regarding tourism is this: “For tourism to work, it must be done in a way that minimizes damage to key habitat, prevents unnecessary stress on the animals, and generates concrete benefits to both conservation programs and nearby communities.”
For tourists, an easy place to start is not paying to touch a cub or adult tiger. The next step should be doing research and not patronizing tiger tourism outlets with unethical practices. Instead, use an experienced and vetted vendor. For example, SEEtheWILD is a non-profit that helps tourists access conservation-minded vendors and operators who aim for protection and a low environmental impact.
Policies Helping Tiger Tourism
Issues surrounding tiger tourism remain contentious. A January article in the Telegraph pointed out that while an increase in Indian tiger population numbers is worth celebrating, especially in light of 2012 bans on tourism, the remaining gray areas of tourism are ones that merit continued scrutiny, particularly the displacement of tribal groups in the name of conservationist tiger tourism.
Ultimately, though, there is a resilient argument made by nature tourism and conservation advocates that, if done right, can have an indelibly positive impact on this endangered species. A notable stride in this direction is the recent collaboration between TOFT and Wildland Adventures in their strategic training objectives for tour guides: “a higher level of training, more consistent with international standards of interpretation and tourism management, will not only enhance the experience of the visitor, but it will assure a higher level of conservation as guides gain more authority and raise awareness within their own communities of the benefits of tiger tourism, the importance of protecting their habitat, and the role that guides and communities can play in helping stop poaching.”
Bass lists key ways that tourists can be responsibly involved: “Never pay to touch a big cat or cub. Advocate for them! Speak out and speak up when you see big cats being used for entertainment and exploited for money. Tiger Temple of course comes to mind. Post negative reviews at Yelp and TripAdvisor. Spread the word about what you saw on social media sites. Follow animal welfare groups on social media, such as Big Cat Rescue. Contact local authorities when you see big cats being exploited or abused. Don’t visit circuses that use live animals.”
By reporting unethical practices, supporting ethical ones, and providing support to ethical organizations, the sound objectives of conservation-based wildlife and nature tourism — tiger tourism in particular — can be achieved.
What’s your opinion on responsible tiger tourism? Please share in the comments below.
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