No longer is wildlife tourism simply a chance to observe animals in their natural state. A recent report from Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve reveals the dark side of tiger tourism in India, where a tour guide pelted stones at a sleeping tiger in Ranthambhore’s Safari Zone 6 so that his guest could get the “perfect action shot”.
Such careless behaviour, and that too by a safari guide, is not entirely unprecedented in Ranthambhore. In 2016, I interned with a wildlife NGO based in this tiger reserve and assisted the forest department in situations related to human-wildlife interactions. In Ranthambhore, where tigers attract a large volume of tourists, people often forget that this striped cat is no domesticated tabby. Around India, scientists and park staff are starting to see the effects of overcrowding by unruly tourists on park wildlife, leading to debates on the ethics of this so-called “tiger tourism.”
In Ranthambhore, it is common to encounter tiger sighting frenzies during tourist season. Let me elaborate: when a tiger is sighted by a tourist jeep, the jeep driver contacts other jeeps in the park, regardless of the zone, and the jeeps hastily converge upon the tiger in order to provide tourists with adequate photo-opportunities and a “fruitful” visit to the park. Tigers are treated as a commodity on safaris, where guests tip drivers depending on the number of successful sightings and call in favours to get seats on jeeps booked for zones with known tiger sightings or high tiger densities.
Unethical practices and consequences
Poorly-managed tiger tourism can create far-reaching problems. Research shows that forest authorities rarely have control over the quotas of tourists allowed into Indian national parks at any given time. Additionally, Ranthambhore safari jeeps are privately owned by tour guides, not centrally-owned by the Forest Department, an anomaly among parks in India. This exacerbates the lack of enforcement on unethical practices such as crowding wildlife and allowing tourists to eat, drink and talk loudly while on safaris. Tourists pay large sums to enter park premises, but upon seeing a tiger, most tourists rapidly lose interest and return to disruptive behaviours such as snacking on food, talking at raised volumes, or trying to call or lure the animals closer to the vehicle. I have seen tourists lean out of jeeps and canters, chips in hand, waving and calling to tigers, or even imitating the animals.
Such behaviour not only spells out danger for the tigers, but also for the humans who live inside and around national parks. Cases of human-tiger conflict are common; during my time interning at Ranthambhore, we assessed cases of livestock predation by tigers, as well as situations of tigers charging safari vehicles and mauling forest guards on patrol. An example of the latter is the tiger Ustad (T-24), who fatally mauled four individuals before being relocated from Ranthambhore to a zoo in Udaipur. Ustad occupied territory in the park’s Zone 1. Tigers are territorial cats and increasing human traffic through habitat creates more scope for human-tiger encounters. Due to habituation to jeeps in the park, tigers in safari zones have been frequently recorded charging safari vehicles instead of simply moving off the road and into the forest, as do tigers in non-safari zones of the forest. Of course, this poses a threat to safari-goers, but also to the charging tiger, which may be shot or relocated in the case of a physical encounter. We must remember that every action has a reaction and pushing an animal past its limit will result in a response, and not necessarily a positive one.
Personal experience with one of Ranthambhore’s big cats – Sultan – has reinforced this in my mind. I was in an official jeep with my senior when we came across a large crowd of people standing on the forest road. A tour bus was parked haphazardly and tourists were milling about pointing eagerly at a low wall of one of the rock temples that can be found inside the park. “Tiger, tiger!” shouted one young man on a motorbike, pointing excitedly at the wall. Sure enough, out of the tall grasses rose the sleek striped form of one of Ranthambhore’s largest male tigers, Sultan (T-72).
I was unprepared for the chaos that ensued; people screamed and ran in all directions, trying to return to their vehicles. The cat stared at us balefully, then yawned, displaying a magnificent set of fangs. I have a special fondness for this tiger, having followed his tracks multiple times and having seen him on various camera traps during my work. Having lived around Ranthambhore’s rambunctious tourists since birth, this tiger was no stranger to crowds and noise. But, like all big cats, he had a limit to how much he would tolerate. As the crowd swelled and our shouting had no effect in breaking up the ruckus, Sultan tilted back his magnificent head and roared defiantly.
Sultan slunk off into the undergrowth peaceably after his short, frustrated vocalisation, but other tigers are not this calm when faced with a crowd. In Ranthambhore, people grow up alongside wildlife that many of us city folk can only dream of encountering. This fosters great tolerance but can also lead to the commodification of wildlife. With tourism at the forefront of revenue generation at Ranthambhore, many locals view tigers as goods to be marketed and “sold” to viewers.
Sultan, although cornered, exhibited a restraint that other tigers, like Ustad, may not display, and underestimating the frustration felt by these big cats is dangerous. Additionally, placing tigresses with cubs in stressful situations such as crowding can affect tiger-tiger and tiger-human interactions. And often, as seen in the case of Ustad, the people who suffer the consequences of poor tourism management are the innocents, such as local community members who respect wildlife, or the stalwart forest guards who risk their lives to save our wilderness.
In the recent case in Ranthambhore, the Chief Wildlife Warden showed a policy of zero tolerance towards those who disturb wildlife. This admirable attitude, as well as the outrage raised by the public and wildlife enthusiasts over the incident, leaves hope that one day tiger tourism will work in favour of the tiger and its ongoing conservation.
Priya Ranganathan is a researcher with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. She works on the ecology and restoration of wetland ecosystems in India. A geologist by training, she obtained her M.Sc. in Ecosystem Science and Conservation from Duke University in 2017, and enjoys writing, reading and dancing in her free time.