This year, there’s at last some good news. Tiger numbers in the wild have risen. Not greatly, but this is the first time numbers have increased after a hundred years of decline.
India’s wild tiger population is now just over 1,900 – which might seem a good-sized number, but a hundred years earlier there were 100,000 tigers in the wild, compared with 3,890 today.
Such a major collapse in world tiger numbers should certainly have made people take notice. Someone did. Project Tiger was launched in 1973 by India’s first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. It achieved a great deal, especially given the immense counter-pressures on land and resources in India. However, the approach has been criticised as bureaucratic and reactive and, whilst it arrested decline, the small increase recorded gives little hope of reaching WWF’s goal of ‘doubling global tiger numbers’ by the next Chinese Year of the Tiger in 2022. What was right 40 years ago might not be right now. New approaches are needed. My own background might not suggest a particular interest in conservation. I studied geography at Glasgow University, but my career has been in telecommunications and media. My own interest in tigers grew from going on wildlife holidays, leading me to co-found a niche travel operator supporting conservation projects across Asia and Africa. It is also the background to my books. Over the years I have seen attitudes to wildlife tourism ebb and flow. A few years ago I helped establish an awards programme in India, encouraging best practice in tiger tourism. It was then that I realised many in the conservation world still tended to see tourism as an enemy, not an ally to embrace.
Yes, tourism has its downsides, but it’s one of the world’s biggest economic activities and has political capital, offering a potential solution to the one key problem with wildlife conservation for so many communities – that wildlife is often worth more dead than alive. Tourism has a vital role to play here and, managed differently, wildlife can in fact be worth more to local communities alive than dead.
Namibia provides some inspiring examples. A series of well managed partnerships with local communities have more than doubled the area under conservation. Lion numbers have increased by a factor of seven and Mountain Zebra numbers have soared from about 1,000 to 27,000. They now actually ‘export’ species to other wildlife areas. Sustainable, responsible, conservation travel brings income and jobs.
Meanwhile, in South Africa the land area of the Kruger National Park is effectively doubled by the private lodges that surround the official park – and local people see wildlife as a key part of their long term livelihood. Similar opportunities exist in India but change is not easy. Tigers require large ranges, and if numbers are to increase, then ways need to be found to increase the amount of land available. Natural corridors that connect parks need to be opened so animals can roam more freely.
Opening up land to properly managed conservation tourism could well offer up local employment whilst providing the catalyst needed to really change the dynamic.
It’s time for new attitudes towards tourism and conservation.
lRD Dikstra is the author of the children’s book Tigeropolis: The Grand Opening, published on 12 October.0