Tigers' fate is still uncertain

One of the most riveting images in the office of award-winning photographer and lifelong tiger advocate Belinda Wright isn't of the charismatic feline itself, but of its aftermath. Tibetan men are draped in the gleaming pelts — worth nearly $10,000 each on the black market — of a creature wildlife experts worry may be on its last legs.

The good news, notes Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, is that sales and display of tiger skins among Tibetans have dropped in response to a public awareness campaign by the Dalai Lama, the World Wildlife Fund and others. At the same time, however, an illegal demand for tiger bones and other body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine has prompted an expansion of tiger farming in China, where there's commercial lobbying to lift a domestic trade ban on tiger parts.

And that, coupled with escalating pressure on forest habitat in the tiger's biggest stomping ground, India, means the doomsday clock for Panthera tigris is ticking perilously close to midnight.

According to a new Indian-government-sponsored survey, no more than 1,500 Bengal tigers are left in India, where Project Tiger was launched 35 years ago after the country's first tiger census showed the population had dipped to about 1,800. Worldwide, the total number of wild tigers (of six sub-species, the Bengal is the most numerous) has dwindled to fewer than 5,000, says the World Wildlife Fund's Sybille Klenzendorf.

At a wildlife crime-prevention workshop held in early November near Ranthambhore National Park, core of the country's best-known tiger preserve, Indian and U.S. officials discussed ways to thwart poachers, whose frontline adversaries are poorly paid, ill-trained forest guards who often don't even carry guns. One plan, proposed recently by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India, would recruit retired soldiers to patrol tiger sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, conservationists worry about the effect of recently passed Indian legislation that recognizes the rights of an estimated 85 million members of traditional tribes to occupy forest land — a subject of dispute in a rapidly developing but still largely rural and poor country. Though India's 28 tiger reserves may be exempt as "critical habitat," "there are still a lot of details to be hammered out, and how the tribal bill will impact these core areas isn't clear," says Brian Gratwicke of the Washington, D.C.-based Save the Tiger Fund.

Also unclear, and contentious, is the role of tourism in the fight to save the tiger.

As more foreign and Indian visitors gravitate to tiger sanctuaries such as Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Kanha, Panna, Pench and Ranthambhore, they're being accompanied by new, often high-end, lodges and other facilities.

Under a recent partnership between India-based Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Conservation Corporation Africa, two lodges have opened in Bandhavgarh (said to have one of the country's highest tiger concentrations) and Pench national parks; two more are set to launch in Panna and Kanha early next year. The current tab at Bandhavgarh's Mahua Kothi, where room décor is inspired by local kutiyas, or forest dwellings: more than $1,500 per couple per night, including meals and game drives with a naturalist who holds forth from the cushy confines of a customized four-wheel drive.

But in contrast to many African safaris in privately owned game reserves, Indian tiger excursions sometimes take on a carnival atmosphere. At Bandhavgarh and Kanha, where naturalist Wright's parents founded one of the park's first game lodges, a key attraction is the "tiger show." Park staff with walkie-talkies set out on elephant back to locate a tiger; when they do, tourists board their own elephants to come in for a closer view.

And while the England-based Travel Operators for Tigers posts codes of conduct that include competent tour guides who carry "suitable maps, a mammal guidebook, bird books and other material to show/illustrate what is being seen," critics complain that a "tiger-centric" culture prevails.

Some well-traveled wildlife aficionados, like recent Ranthambhore visitor Jane Hughes of Cambridge, England, are nonplussed by their Indian experience.

Despite multiple tiger sightings, some at close range, "it was all so frenetic and haphazard with vehicles roaring around, and lots of people shouting and generally not behaving as one would expect around endangered animals," Hughes says. "It left me with the feeling that all those cubs born this year may have a bleak future."

Ranthambhore's visitor regulations, which include a limit on the number and type of tour vehicles allowed into the park each day and a new lottery system for assigning game drive routes, are clearly subject to interpretation.

One guide said that despite the lottery, in which visitors draw zone assignments out of a bag when entering the main gate, those willing to pay an extra 500 rupees (about $12.50) could wrangle a drive through choice "zone three," which encompasses the park's scenic lakes and is prime tiger territory. And during a recent three-hour morning game drive, all eight allotted tourist vehicles backed up behind several jeep-loads of "V.I.P.s," with frustrated tourists waiting half an hour while the officials trained their binoculars and cameras on a reclusive tiger.

"Everybody blames tourism, because it's such an easy, visible target," says lodge owner Goverdhan Singh Rathore, who grew up in Ranthambhore as the son of the park's first game warden, Fateh Singh Rathore.

But compared with poaching, habitat degradation and pervasive corruption, he says, "tourism is the least of the tigers' problems. The fact is that tourism keeps park management on its toes. Out of sight means out of mind."

Wright isn't so sure: "At the moment, tourism is keeping tigers safe because it helps keep the bloody poachers out," she allows. But, she says, "in a national park, the wildlife should come first. We have too few tigers to push them over the brink with undisciplined tourism."

Meanwhile, the chance — however slim — of spotting one of the world's most ravishing animals is a powerful draw, notes Gerhard Wiehahn, general manager of Ranthambhore's Aman-i-Khas lodge, part of the ultra-luxe Aman Resorts group.

"Most people are trying to squeeze in all of India in two or three weeks, and they come to see a tiger, not have a typical safari experience. At the end of the day, nothing else matters," he says. "And if the tiger goes, all of us can lock our doors and go home."

Says Rathore: "I'd like to see the Taj Mahal by myself on a full-moon night, but I can't. Nature is becoming scarcer and scarcer, and everyone wants to see a tiger. They are symbols of nature that give people a reason to live."