Tiger tourism is back and burning bright in Rajasthan

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After they were closed by the government this summer, India's nature reserves are starting to reopen to tourists, but with greater safeguards for wildlife, as Harriet O'Brien discovers

Listen for the call of peacocks – langur monkeys too. That was the advice I was given as we set off in rosy morning light to look for tigers in Rajasthan's Ranthambore Park. Passing under the great aerial roots of a banyan tree I started to hear strident cries. They grew louder as we rounded a corner of the track – and then we ground to a halt. A tiger cub the size of a cocker spaniel was ambling along the rough road ahead of us. It stopped in its tracks, looked at our 4x4 with insouciance and vanished into the bush.

A quartet of worried peacocks emerged, scurrying past in unlikely disarray, coronet topknots bobbing crazily. Moments later a big tiger stood before us. It was so close I could hear it breathing. I hadn't appreciated what an adrenalin rush you get from proximity to a beast of such power and self-conscious majesty. This was the mother, and now and then she called out softly to her young in the undergrowth, revealing very large, very long canines as she did so. She was evidently unfazed by our vehicle – it was neither meal nor menace.

Less than a month earlier, I would not have been able to see, or indeed hear, any of this – no tigers, no mad-dash peacocks, no langur cries. For Ranthambore, like the other 40 tiger reserves in India, had been firmly closed. And tiger tourism had been banned.

That was by edict of the supreme court of India, which in July announced measures to close tiger reserves to tourists. The move was sparked by a petition filed last year by environmental campaigner Ajay Dubey. In it he maintained that tourism was traumatising tigers and damaging conservation efforts.

The Supreme Court put the matter to the forestry ministry which controls India's parks. For months there was no response, so the court issued what has effectively been a wake-up call to India's conservation authorities. The ban was imposed during the annual closure of the parks but it remained in place after they should have reopened in the autumn.

This was radical: it is impossible to quantify how many tens of thousands of livelihoods are dependent on tiger-related tourism, from hotel staff to guides, drivers, farmers, craftspeople, shopkeepers and a great band of associated traders. Debate grew heated over whether tourism really does hinder the protection of one of the world's most endangered species. After intense lobbying on the part of the tourist industry and many conservationists, the embargo was lifted in the middle of October and the parks reopened under a fresh set of guidelines.

At Ranthambore, I was told that each state government is responsible for the day-to-day running of its wildlife parks. However, as an overall ruling within the 17 "tiger states" (from Assam to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala), "Critical Tiger Habitats" have been newly defined and tourists are allowed into just 20 per cent of each of those areas. The state governments have been given six months to draw up their new regulations for entry into the parks, narrowly defining everything from timings to registration of visitors and vehicles. The rulings will be ratified in April 2013.

And reactions at Ranthambore? Painful though it all has been, in many respects the ban and its repercussions have been good news for India's tigers, I was told. "It has forced the authorities to take a good look at what they're actually doing about conservation, which they haven't monitored well for years," one of the guides remarked. The most up-to-date official estimate of tiger numbers is from 2010; across the country it was just 1,706. "Over recent years official conservation of the big cat has been stymied by the apathy of politicians and quite probably by the connivance of some forestry workers with poachers," he added.

Meantime, it is widely acknowledged that those working in tourism – guides, drivers and others – have had a valuable role in monitoring and policing tiger movements and potential threats.

I toured Ranthambore several times with Yusuf Ansari, author, conservationist, wildlife campaigner, former politician and host at Sher Bagh, the beautifully devised tented camp just outside the park, where I was staying. Prolonged conversation wasn't possible as we swayed around the jungle tracks in an open-sided 4x4, so after our first game drive (no tiger sighting then, but plenty of deer, antelope, crocodiles and eagles in evidence) we retreated to the hotel and talked in its leafy gardens beside the dramatically sited infinity pool.

"The tiger is at the top of an ecosystem," he said. "If it survives then the rest of the ecosystem does too. If it doesn't, then deer and antelope will freely nibble down the grasslands and the entire area degrades. So saving the tiger isn't just about the survival of one species." The biggest threat to the tiger, he added, is loss of habitat – through farming, industry, bad management. Poaching is next on the list of enormous problems for the big cat.

At Ranthambore, they'd had an appalling year in 2004 when 20 tigers were lost to poachers. At the same time, Sariska, Rajasthan's other tiger park, lost 24. That was its entire population of the big cat. Ranthambore has since recovered well: there are at least 56 tigers (not including this year's cubs) in the greater area. Meanwhile, five of its tigers have been relocated to Sariska. Two more young tigresses (evidently with a taste for upmarket facilities for they periodically visit the gardens of Sher Bagh and the adjacent luxury resort Aman-i-Khas) are due to be transported there soon.

And tourism? Of course, visitors in volume make a big impact on the environment, and that has the knock-on effect of damaging the chances of the tiger surviving: therefore, Yusuf said, careful tourist management is vital. Yet the range of landscapes in India's parks is so varied, he added, that very different measures are needed in each reserve – one solution certainly doesn't fit all. At Ranthambore, there are nine tourist zones, to each of which eight vehicles are admitted twice a day. (Big fines are imposed if they stray from the agreed area.) The key factor under review at the moment, he explained, is the maximum carrying capacity of each vehicle – how many people do you allow to view an animal at the same time?

It was on our third game drive that Yusuf tracked our tiger family. We watched the tigress by ourselves for a while. Radios are no longer allowed in vehicles entering in the park. This is mainly in order to stop poachers intercepting information as to tiger movements, but also to avoid sudden dashes of tourist traffic as they congregate around one animal. Nevertheless, other guides had also tracked our tigress. As their tourist groups arrived we left the scene. It would give the animal more space, said Yusuf, and besides with all the other vehicles congregating there we'd have the rest of the zone to ourselves.

We spent the next hour or so exploring a spectacular landscape dotted with spotted deer. Iridescent kingfishers splashed into the rivers. Bright white herons stalked the shallows. Langurs gazed at us from the branches of peepal trees.

Our route out of the park led us back through the area where we'd seen the tigers. And there, we joined seven other vehicles from which more than 40 people were peering at the tigress, now lying in the middle of the track apparently impervious to all the attention. She moved in her own good time, unblocking our 4x4 and several others only shortly before the visiting session ended and the park gates closed.

Before leaving the Ranthambore district later that morning, I had coffee with Dr Goverdhan Singh Rathore, who owns Khem Villas hotel, adjacent to Sher Bagh, and who has been involved with the park and tiger conservation for most of his life. In the early 1980s, it was his father, Fateh Singh Rathore, who was largely responsible for the creation of the park area out of the former hunting ground of the Maharajah of Jaipur. There has been little evidence that tigers are stressed by tourism, Goverdhan commented. "Besides, if they object to being seen they won't stay put. After all, you rarely see a number of vehicles grouped around a leopard," he said. "If an animal doesn't like being looked at then it simply melts into the jungle."

Just as our tiger cub had done that morning.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Harriet O'Brien travelled to India with Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk), which offers a week's trip to Delhi and Ranthambore from £2,150pp (based on two sharing a room).

The price includes flights from Heathrow, two nights at the Oberoi in Delhi, return rail transfer to Sawai Madhopur and onward transport, four nights' full board at Sher Bagh and six game drives in Ranthambore.

(Note that generally a few weeks' notice is required for game trip bookings.)

Staying there

Sher Bagh (00 91 11 4606 7608; sujanluxury.com) charges from INR28,750 (£324) per night for full board in one of 12 stylish tents.

More information

Incredibleindia.org

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks