Tourists are to be banned from the heartlands of the 37 national tiger reserves in India amid fears that their presence is hastening the demise of an increasingly endangered species.
A bar on visitors entering the breeding areas has been ordered by the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority, alarmed that the tiger population has plummeted from 3,642 animals in 2002 to just 1,411 last year.
It is facing protests from hoteliers and tour operators who fear a decline in revenue and job losses. Tourists will still be allowed to visit buffer zones on the edges of the parks.
Sab Prakash Yadav, joint director of the conservation authority, said human intrusion into the tigers’ main habitats was changing their behaviour and breeding patterns. “Tourism creates a disturbance through vehicles, noise pollution, garbage and the need to provide facilities,” he said.
“When an undisturbed area is allowed, that will provide a better climate and environment for female breeding tigers. One cub was run over by a tourist vehicle in Bandhavgarh park last month.”
Some environmentalists fear that without swift action, India’s tigers could be wiped out. “If there is no protection, it may be a matter of a decade or two before we may be left with very few tigers or none at all,” said Kartick Satyanarayan, chairman of Wildlife SOS, a Delhi-based charity.
Although habitat depletion and poaching are main factors in their decline, Satyanarayan said “irresponsible tourism” was also to blame.
“Excessive tourism makes tigers highly tolerant to human and vehicular presence, thereby making them extremely vulnerable to poaching,” he said.
A fall in tourist numbers would have little effect on conservation efforts as most projects are financed by the Indian government. But some tour organisers believe a tourist ban will give poachers free reign. Tiger bones used in traditional Chinese medicine can fetch up to £800 a pound on the black market and tiger skins cost up to £7,500 each in China.