BANDHAVGAR AND PANNA NATIONAL PARKS, India — Speeding along in an open jeep deep in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh's Bandhavgar National Park, Kartikeya Singh Chauhan, head naturalist at a nearby resort, skidded to a stop and craned his neck to examine the feather-soft sand of the rutted forest track. “See there,” he said. “Fresh pugmarks.”

A tiger had just passed by.

“Pichey! Pichey!” the forest department guard said sharply. “Back up, back up!”

Kartikeya slammed the jeep into reverse and tore up a gravel incline, then stopped and motioned for silence as we all cocked our heads to listen for the alarm calls of the langur and spotted deer — the sentinels of the forest.

A moment later, we heard the short, chirping bark of a spotted deer. As Kartikeya wheeled the jeep forward again and around a bend in the path, the calls grew louder and more insistent, and then we were face-to-face with the big stag that was sounding the alarm. “They're here,” Kartikeya said. “It's the cubs.”

About 18 months ago, one of the park's tigresses had given birth, and now the two adolescents were trying to teach themselves to hunt. Now we could hear the deer and other game crashing through the brush to escape.

Kartikeya sped down the track after the noise. In a moment, a forest guard pushing a bicycle motioned us from the road. “You just missed them,” he said. “They crossed the path, and they're over there.” He gestured toward the dry slope, forested with teak and sal trees.

Suddenly, a herd of spotted deer bounded across a clearing. “Here he comes,” Kartikeya said.
“He's chasing them.” Then a wild boar darted through the gap in the trees. Close on its heels loped a graceful young tiger.

“Wow!” I said, moronically.

Glimpsing a tiger in the wild has become more and more difficult over the past century, as the great cats' numbers have shrunk from around 40,000 in the era of the Model T to only a little more than 3,500 today. India, home to about half of the surviving tigers, is arguably the best place to make a sighting.

And since the beginning of Indira Gandhi's ambitious “Project Tiger” in 1972, tiger tourism has grown in leaps and bounds. As an industry, it is often credited with creating a financial imperative for conservation — not only of tigers but also of all the jungle species that support them. But many Indian conservationists are skeptical of the tour operators' grand claims
about all the good they are doing.

“Tiger tourism in particular is all about making money,” said Belinda Wright, a former National Geographic photographer who now leads the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Even though there are groups which are talking about better practices and things, we haven't really seen them in action.”

Tour companies beg to differ. About 40 percent of India's tigers  — 560 — live in a handful of national reserves that see heavy tourist traffic. Moreover, tour operators say there is evidence that tigers actually thrive better in the parks' tourism zones — which comprise only about a quarter of the total protected area — than they do in the supposedly inviolate sections.

“The highest density of tigers exists in the tourist zones of all the parks,” said one operator. “There's now unequivocal evidence from the scientific world that for whatever reason the tourism zones have been one of the core protectors of tigers.”

Pench National Park, for instance, had more prey than tigers until it became popular with tourists and predators flourished. According to the lobby group Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFT), there are four reasons:

  • Tourists and their guides and drivers keep poachers away;
  • High tourist traffic raises the status of a park and makes it easier to attract local, governmental or international funding;
  • The presence of tourists as informal watchdogs motivates park rangers and management to do their jobs better; and
  • Wildlife tourism creates a local economy in which the forests are more valuable as living ecosystems than as firewood or agricultural land.

“Tourism is the only industry which pays for standing trees,” said Abishek Behl, executive director of the TOFT India Wildlife Association.

Apart from providing employment for locals and buying local produce, some tour operators have embraced local schools and taken on community development projects, though efforts remain scattered and resources are rarely marshaled together to maximize their effects.

But the economic benefits to the community and the direct income that tourists provide to the forest department through gate fees can only have an impact if the park management both understands and does its job — a prospect that is less likely because the administrators of all India's national parks are trained in commercial forestry, not wildlife management. And the tour companies themselves have little scope to pressure the forest department officials — which partly explains why there wasn't a louder outcry over the relocation of tigers from Bandhavgar and Kanha to the failing Panna National Park this March. (Read part two of this series.)

“India works on a top-down system,” Behl said. “The government orders and people follow. “If tourism operators start saying bad stuff about the management, they'll certainly be banned from entering the park the next season, and it's not sustainable for their businesses.”

The dilemma is apparent in the way Kartikeya's employers, a new joint venture between the Taj Group and &Beyond (formerly known as CC Africa), have sought to use so-called “soft power” to encourage better management of the four major tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh — in each of which they offer luxury safaris based out of five-star, boutique lodges.

For example, instead of browbeating managers about how things are done in South Africa — which, according to &Beyond conservation manager Les Carlisle is 40 years ahead of India in wilderness management — &Beyond invited top Indian forest department personnel on a fact-finding tour to some of its African properties.

It has also begun outreach programs with local schoolchildren to communicate the conservation message. And the company pushes its naturalists — some of whom, like Kartikeya, are PhD-holding wildlife scientists — to impress upon the forest department guides the value of unobtrusive incursions into the park.

Eventually, they say, it pays off. “I've just come out of the Serengeti now, and we had vehicles parked on the road 50 meters from a family of cheetah,” Carlisle said. “It was the most wonderful experience for everybody. I never thought I'd see that in a natural park, and there was nobody out there except the guides. No park officials, no nothing. That's just been 10 years of doing the right thing.”

A few hours after my first glimpse of a tiger, a second viewing gave me a better idea of the point that Carlisle had been trying to make. Kartikeya heard from the ranger station that the forest guards, riding on elephants, had rustled up an adult male tiger from its territory near the park entrance. Now tourists like me could race over, climb from the back of the jeep to the back of an elephant, and follow the tiger into the bush.

When we got to the spot, the tiger was still up in the hills, away from the road, so we climbed aboard an elephant and followed him into the jungle. But it soon became clear that the mahouts were actually driving the tiger toward the road, where by now half a dozen jeep loads of tourists had arrived, roaring up in billowing clouds of dust.

The tiger stalked ahead, alternatively aloof and irritated, and eventually padded across the road to find a spot to lie hidden in the tall grass. It was an amazing experience. But also a pathetic one.

And, as a glorified tourist myself, I couldn't help but wonder whether I was really offering a solution, or just one more part of the problem.

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Read more about wildlife:

The tigers of India: Fearful symmetry? Part 2 of series

Cameroon's gorillas find sanctuary

Bush babies struggle in South Africa's urban jungle

Video: Man vs. monkey

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