By Chandrima Pal Jul. 29, 2019
In April this year, a guide from Ranthambore National Park was suspended for pelting stones at a sleeping tiger. At Periyar Tiger Reserve, safari vehicles were found entering the core area unaccompanied by authorised guides, setting fires and littering. Our insatiable appetite for spotting a tiger in the wild is threatening the existence of the very creature it is meant to protect.
In recent years, Maharashtra’s six tiger reserves have seen a remarkable spike in their tiger population. But before you start celebrating, here are some sobering facts. The state that boasts of a count of 312 tigers in the latest census, also holds the distinction of mismanaging its reserves the most, giving in to unbridled and irresponsible tourism that is adversely affecting the tiger’s fragile habitat and its health.
Over the past five years, there have been several instances of angry, cornered tigers charging at tourist vehicles and bike-born villagers, who often cross the forest. One such incident of a tigress charging at and chasing a tourist vehicle full of panic-stricken tourists went viral, forcing the forest management to clamp down on mobile cameras inside the park. A knee-jerk reaction? Possibly. But a safari in Maharashtra’s jewel in the tiger crown, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) will leave you wondering whether our insatiable appetite for spotting a tiger in the wild is threatening the existence of the very creature it is meant to protect.
Aggressive naturalists, egged on by bribe-happy tourists raise a red dust storm across the buffer zones for hours, as they literally chase and corner the animals, who are known to be incredibly private. Dozens of buses and jeeps jostle with each other to get a better view of the tigers that are often irritable at having been pushed out of their territory, woken up or simply interrupted. In April this year, a guide from Ranthambore National Park was suspended for pelting stones at a sleeping tiger. He wanted to wake up the sleeping cat so that the tourist who was on a full-day safari could get better pictures.
In recent years, Maharashtra’s six tiger reserves have seen a remarkable spike in their tiger population. Tim Graham/Getty Images
In recent years, Maharashtra’s six tiger reserves have seen a remarkable spike in their tiger population.
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Such incidents are not isolated. A friend who is an avid wildlife photographer tells me about an incident at the Bandhavgarh National Park, where a commotion by visitors caused a tigress to flee from the watering hole. “This was peak summer and a pregnant tigress was waiting in the bushes for nearly two hours close to the water body. As soon as the tigress started approaching the water, around eight to ten safari vehicles gathered around it. Tourists desperate to get a better view started making so much noise that the cat just snarled in our direction and left. Essentially, we denied a pregnant animal her water,” he says.
As this glorified circus plays itself out with shocking aggressiveness, the overwhelming sense is one that of a violent intrusion into a sacred space. And when a dozen packed vehicles block the way of a tiger desperate for some privacy or safe passage, you cannot really blame an old, incapacitaed tigress or male adult for losing its cool. Even as much as a snarl of displeasure is a message enough, as it happened to us during a safari at Tadoba.
The harassment and disrespect that we have for wildlife does not stop at this. Maharashtra’s stellar efforts toward saving the tiger are offset by its dubious track record of tiger deaths – it holds the distinction of witnessing some of the most devastating attacks on the big cat in recent years. The government, in a report, admitted to having lost 30 tigers between January 2017 and October 2018. Many of these deaths were registered in Chandrapur, Wardha, Nagpur, and Gadchiroli. One reason being, the state’s problem of plenty – more tigers means more tourists, more commercial activity and more conflict. With shrinking habitats, unchecked human intervention and intrusion in their spaces, these predators have no option but to venture out of the protected areas, making themselves vulnerable to conflict with humans.
Just a couple of weeks ago the bodies of a tigress and her cubs were found in near a canal in Metepar village under the Chimur forest range, which comes under the Chandrapur circle of Tadoba.
Just a couple of weeks ago the bodies of a tigress and her cubs were found in near a canal in Metepar village under the Chimur forest range, which comes under the Chandrapur circle of Tadoba. The animals died after eating from a carcass poisoned by an irate farmer, despite the fact that there is a mechanism in place to compensate farmers for cattle killed by predators in the national parks and reserve forests.
Alarmed by the situation, the Comptroller and Auditor General conducted an extensive audit of the six tiger reserves in Maharashtra. The performance audit of the tiger reserves came down heavily on the state administration for failing to contain unbridled tourism and encroachments into the reserves – prime causes for curtailing the tiger habitat. The CAG, among other recommendations, calls for phasing out permanent tourism structures in core areas and stronger monitoring inside the reserves and outside of the protected areas.
It’s not just unruly tourists running wild on safari; there are other factors that also impact the tiger habitat in the region, like local land mafias. The upsurge in unbridled tourism has not only pushed up the land prices, but also destroyed an ancient way of life. For centuries the tribal communities that lived on the fringes of the forest enjoyed free access to the bounties of the bamboo forest. They celebrated their festivals and other calendar events in the forest, until they were told that their settlements will have to be relocated in order to accommodate the tiger population, and sometimes, a new tarred road. This is leading to more conflicts and a certain animosity toward the animal, which is counter-productive to the aims of conservation.
The CAG, in a separate report, found that many of the problems seen at Maharashtra’s Tadoba National Park are also manifesting in other tiger reserves across the nation, with varying degrees of severity. At Periyar Tiger Reserve, tourist vehicles were found entering the core area unaccompanied by authorised guides, setting fires and littering. In July, an image of a leopard chewing on a polythene bag near the Jim Corbett National Park went viral. That could very well have been a tiger. Around the same time, elephants, used illegally for joy rides and often to corner younger tigers in the forest for a closer view, charged on tourist vehicles.
It’s not just unruly tourists running wild on safari; there are other factors that also impact the tiger habitat in the region, like local land mafias. IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
It’s not just unruly tourists running wild on safari; there are other factors that also impact the tiger habitat in the region, like local land mafias.
IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Corbett might be ground zero for the culture of flaunting the rules put in place for the tigers’ protection. It is not uncommon for forest officials to accommodate VIPs and their networks of families and friends, to organise night safaris, bonfires, parties in the forest, and secret expeditions for thrilling encounters with predators. It has gotten so bad that the Uttarakhand government recently put its foot down on the “VIP culture” of bribing and coercing that goes on in the name of tiger tourism, issuing a circular condemning the “brazen abuse of official position for seeking favour for personal ends.”
Tiger tourism in India has served its purpose in drawing attention to the efforts at conserving this beautiful animal, our national treasure. But it has been a double-edged sword, also posing a huge threat to the tiger’s very existence.
The tiger is a territorial animal and its existence and well being depends on its access to prey and an inviolate space in the forest. So the next time you pay a small fortune for a choreographed and hugely intrusive “safari” experience, think twice. After all, we should visit the tiger in its habitat the way we would want someone to visit us in our home – politely and with respect.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).