Tigers have held a mystical place in our imaginations for millennia. They’re one of the main species travellers yearn to see on a safari to India, yet their very existence is under threat due to human influences. Find out how your own safari can help tiger conservation.
Despite their mythical status and recent positive conservation action by the Indian Government, tigers’ survival is still at risk and it is more important than ever to support efforts to save their fast declining natural habitat.
Between the early 19th and 20th centuries, tigers were hunted for sport and their skin, and more recently, it is also the use of their body parts for amulets and traditional ‘medicine’ that is driving the poaching trade, as well as the price their pelts reach on the black market. This coupled with human-animal conflict in the areas surrounding their natural habitat have become the biggest threats to tiger conservation.
By the 1970’s, the tiger population in India had dropped to a mere 1,800 (estimated) which led the government to set up the Tiger Task Force and introduce Project Tiger. Protected areas were created and hunting was banned, which resulted in a marked improvement in the tiger population within these reserves (though tigers were still lost from unprotected areas).
Recent census estimates have shown positive results with the estimated numbers of tigers doubling since the first peer-reviewed census in 2006 from approximately 1411 to 2967 (est) in the most recent 2018 census.
However, poaching, human-animal conflict and habitat loss/fragmentation remain major threats and many experts believe that like in many parts of Africa, sustainable wildlife tourism can play a pivotal role in saving the tiger.
I was fortunate to be able to speak to one of India’s leading conservation biologists, Dr Raghu S. Chundawat, about tiger conservation, current issues and successes.
His latest book – ‘The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers’, talks about his ten years of research in Panna Tiger Reserve in the late 1990’s that saw the best-documented recovery of a tiger population in the country. Sadly, this remarkable success was not to last very long due to uncontrolled illegal poaching that brought the tiger population close to extinction. However, since 2009, there has been a globally unique recovery, this time through an extremely successful programme introduced by the local authorities. It is a truly fascinating read for all wildlife enthusiasts!
Dr. Chundawat is also the co-owner of Sarai at Toria, a charming and very traditional lodge near Panna Tiger Reserve in Central India which he runs in partnership with his wife Joanna Van Gruisen who is a renowned wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. Located on the banks of one of the most pristine rivers – the river Ken - the lodge offers the most serene and wonderful wilderness experience.
In line with their core ethos focused on conservation and sustainability, they run the lodge with the help of locally recruited staff in an environmentally and socially responsible manner with the sole aim of using responsible wildlife tourism to protect the native wildlife and culture. Additionally Raghu and Joanna have founded the charitable organisation BAAVAN in order to assist tiger conservation efforts in and around Panna tiger reserve.
As I so firmly believe, luxury is not the opulence of stay but rather the richness of experience and this philosophy is imbibed in the experience offered by Raghu and Joanna at their lodge.
The most recent census was the four-yearly count of all tigers in India in 2018, which found around 2967 individuals. This does show a gradual increase since 2006 where around 1400 were counted.
Although this is encouraging, tiger biologists are still very concerned at the reduction in geographical range that was found. Loss of range is the first sign of extinction and globally, tigers now survive in less than 7% of their former range.
India does however still support around 80% of the world’s wild tiger population and it is encouraging to see that in the last few years, tigers have reoccupied some of their previously lost territories in India. What is most encouraging about India’s tiger conservation is that there are plenty of individual success stories and it is very exciting for the conservation world.
According to last few estimates, tiger populations are recovering, but some of us are critical of our achievements because India could have done better. Factors responsible for threatening tiger populations have changed over the years. It was sports hunting long ago, later it was loss of habitat and habitat quality and more recently poaching, initially for tiger body parts such as bones but more recently also for skins.
Every decade new threats appear and currently we are struggling with linear projects such as widening of roads, railway lines, and irrigation canals. These linear developmental structures fragment and isolate the larger connected habitats into smaller fragments.
We may have 2967 tigers but these now survive in over 80 separate populations and most of them are small and not viable on their own. Their survival is dependent on the connectivity with neighbouring populations. Small isolated populations are highly vulnerable to extinction risk.
When India started its tiger conservation in 1970s by launching the very unique Project Tiger it created a network of protected areas called Tiger Reserves especially for tigers. It followed an exclusionary conservation path, where all threats to tiger, its prey and habitat were removed.
This really helped and the tiger population flourished but only within these tiger reserves. Tiger habitats outside these reserves were ignored and we lost most of our tigers from there. Now we realize that many of the isolated tiger populations within the tiger reserves are not viable and conservation must expand its scope beyond these boundaries.
New approaches are required. A new conservation model that is inclusionary in its approach is the need of the hour for the larger tiger habitat. And we believe wildlife tourism can play a vital role in achieving this goal in near future.
Wildlife tourism can be a nature friendly industry. Most of the areas in which it operates are remote and are where the local population has not benefitted from mainstream modern development. Such development is not always desirable for an ecologically sensitive area, whereas an industry like wildlife tourism can bring local income whilst remaining low-impact.
A recent study conducted by us in central India highlights that even though the industry on average at 30% occupancy is not the most profitable model, almost 55% of the turn over goes back to the local communities. Through the entrance fees, many reserves have the potential to be independent financially.
In addition, the study also found that communities that benefitted from tourism have a very positive attitude towards wildlife and nature conservation, much more so than those who are not touched by the tourism industry. This is very important because any conservation project needs local support for it to be successful.
In India we have not exploited the potential of wildlife tourism as an effective conservation and development tool in ways South Africa and Scotland have and there are many lessons to be learned from these two models.
I come from an academic background, in wildlife science and did my PhD on snow leopard in Ladakh and later conducted a decade-long study on tiger in Panna. Joanna my partner in the Sarai at Toria also comes from a similar wildlife conservation background, she produced wildlife documentary films and latterly worked as professional wildlife photographer.
With this background, whatever we do, conservation and ecology is always our priority. As much as possible, we aim for the Sarai’s revenue to go into the local economy: its building materials were local, our staff are all local and we buy much of our food locally.
Through the charity BAAVAN, we are also working towards creating a tiger-friendly neighbourhood around the Panna Tiger Reserve and we believe the next generation will be most important in achieving our conservation goals.
So we are focusing on nature conservation education programmes for schools in corridor forests. We also want to explore conservation and volunteer tourism to generate employment opportunities and generate a tiger friendly environment in these corridor forests.
Corridor forests are stretches of forest habitat between tiger reserves that allow different populations to interact, as well as providing shelter and prey. It is important that tigers can migrate to find mates in other populations to maintain diversity, without them they become isolated.
If tiger can survive it is very likely that it will in the subcontinent. India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have done substantially better than any other tiger range country despite huge problems. The past success stories and the commitment local governments have shown gives us this confidence that the sub-continent will do its best to protect its tigers.
Currently we are not fully using wildlife tourism as a conservation tool. The model we have followed is exclusionary and working only within protected area boundaries that limits the contribution tourism can make in this regard.
When we pursue a parallel conservation model that is inclusionary we want the primary beneficiary of the initiative to be the local community. This is when tourism potential can be unleashed. All of us in this sector must focus and support such an idea.
As rightly observed by Dr. Chundawat, wildlife tourism in India is still in its infancy and unlike Africa, it is not widely being used as a conservation tool. Its full potential has now slowly started to emerge in prime wildlife regions of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, through the initiatives undertaken by the owners of safari lodges and conservationists.
Apart from Sarai at Toria, there are other lodges and camps that do give back to the local community, including but not limited to empowerment of local communities through training and employment, provision of medical care and support in education. Jamtara Wilderness Camp in Pench and Singinawa Jungle Lodge in Kanha are other examples of where this community empowerment is done incredibly well.
The work of Jamtara, Singinawa, Sarai at Toria and others like them means that it is becoming evident that tiger safaris in India CAN play a very effective role in resolving issues related to poaching and human-animal conflict, through sustainable economic development of the remote communities settled around the national parks.
With the right training and support, poachers can be turned into passionate protectors and the locals fighting the animals for sustenance can be offered alternative source of income and development. Furthermore, with growing number of tourists, the local authorities are able to generate more funds through park entry fees and safari permits that are being used for conservation programmes.
Slowly and steadily, India is being developed as a broader safari destination and national parks like Panna, Pench, Satpura, Pilibhit and Kaziranga are playing an instrumental role in changing the general perception by offering a more varied wildlife experience focusing on other mammals, birds and reptiles including sloth bears, leopards and rhinos.
For more information on how a tiger safari to India can contribute to conservation and local communities, please do contact me.
One of India’s leading wildlife academics, Dr R. S. Chundawat started his career as a conservation biologist twenty years ago by conducting pioneering research on the ecology of snow leopard and its prey species in the Ladakh Mountains for his PhD. Since then he has been involved intimately in the conservation of wildlife in high altitudes in the Himalayan and the central Asian mountains.
He last held the post of Regional Science and Conservation Director for the International Snow Leopard Trust and provided supervision to their five-country programme in Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and India.
He has travelled extensively in the sub-continent and developed expertise on both large carnivores and high-altitude wildlife.
For ten years he was a member of the teaching faculty of India’s premier research and training institute, the Wildlife Institute of India.
The significant contribution of his research and conservation work has been widely recognised by the international conservation community: he is the recipient of several awards including Esso’s ‘Honour for Tiger Conservation’ in 2001; the ‘Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award’ 2002 for excellence and the ‘Tiger Gold’ award in 2003 for outstanding scientific work with wild tigers. In 2003 BBC/Animal Planet produced an award-winning wildlife documentary film on his work with the Tigers in Panna − “Tigers of the Emerald Forest”.
Images courtesy of Sarai at Toria, Jamtara Wilderness Camp and Singinawa Jungle Lodge
This blog was initially published in 2018 and updated on 21st July 2022 with new information.