The environmentalists are happy. The hoteliers and tour operators are depressed. The double bench of the top court of India, Supreme Court, has banned tiger tourism activities in the core areas of tiger reserves.
Interim in nature, the final judgement is still awaited. Wildlife activists had filed a case in the Supreme Court requesting cessation of all commercial activity from the core areas of tiger reserves.
More than half of the world's tiger population resides in India's tiger national parks. World tiger population estimates are of 3200 in number. At the start of 20th century, the Tiger population was estimated to be 100,000!
The Central Minister for environment and forests, Ms Jayanthi Natarajan has welcomed the order. She is going to write to Chief ministers of the concerned states, requesting them to strictly implement the law.
Officials allied with the Ministry and Forest departments are tongue tied and consider the order as highly sensitive.
From this August 22nd, no more tourists visits to the endangered zones of 39 Tiger Parks. The parks most affected are Bandipur, Kanha, Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Kaziranga and Kalakad - Mundanthurai.
The national parks earn substantial revenues from tiger tourism and in few cases, the revenue is shared with the state governments also. E.g. Madhya Pradesh.
Tourists access is restricted to the buffer zone of national parks, but sighting Tiger in buffer zone is almost impossible. Tourists perhaps will not find this attractive enough for them to visit the national parks, and as a consequence many small-time businessman who earn their livelihood by running a local lodge or a restaurant, shall be substantially hit.
Buffer zones are the fringe areas that surround the core habitats of tiger up to a distance of 9 to 10 km.
The Supreme Court has taken a grim view on the lack of buffer zones around tiger habitats in six states and have fined them stiffly. The law to protect the core areas was passed in 1972. State governments lackadaisical approach resulted in massive violations, witnessed in the hundreds of hotels that have come to exist inside the deep forests, even in the core areas.
Tour operators are suggesting the model used by Rwanda for Gorilla tourism. Restrictions, high fees ($ 750 per visit) and accompanying armed guards have only increased the number of visitors albeit in a safe manner.
Tour operators claim that access to core areas of protected habitats by the tourists actually creates a virtuous circle, because presence of so many tourists deters the poachers. Heavily tourist trafficked national parks have higher densities of Tigers vis-a-vis the less visited national parks, where Tigers have been lost to neglect, poaching and grazing. Expectedly, conservationists debunk this saying the positives are far outnumbered by the negatives.
Devastated chairman of Travel Operators for Tigers, Julian Matthews calls this order retrograde and against the main objective of Project Tiger in his response.
Some tour operators have initiated the process of refunds. Wildlife tours in India are an important part of India tours and they shall not be the same again.