Travel: Why your kids may never see a live tiger

IF YOU ARE disturbed by the thought of tourism taking out more from the environment than it puts in - and if you also happen to be fairly rich - I suggest you take a tiger holiday this year with a company called Discovery Initiatives (Tel: 0171 229 9881).

According to experts, the tiger is on course to be virtually extinct within a dozen years unless radical steps are taken. Valmik Thapar, leading tiger-guru, says that the wild tiger population in India will be down to 500 (from current numbers of about 3,000) even if these steps are taken. If not, doom beckons.

You don't have to be an eco-warrior to find that a pretty gut wrenching idea. Tigers are not dodoes. Tigers are animals with which the human race has grown up. Their extinction would be a massive family bereavement.

The Discovery Initiatives holiday is not just a matter of jolting around in the back of a jeep hoping to spot a tiger's tail. It is a luxury holiday that has been designed with the help of tiger protection agencies to give a unique insight into the tiger habitat and why it is under threat. It'll cost you pounds 3,000 plus - but bear in mind that tiger-protection agencies will receive about pounds 250 of this in exchange for their assistance.

"Each year something like 100,000 tourists go on a tiger-spotting trip as part of their India holiday, but at present none of their money goes towards conservation," Julian Matthews, director of Discovery Initiatives, told me. "In fact the tourism industry could easily save the tiger. Even if all of those 100,000 tourists just put a tenner in a box we could turn the situation round."

Just a tenner in a box. Given that tourism will soon be the world's largest industry, what a warming thought it is to think of so much money potentially available for the sole purpose of cleaning up and beautifying the world. If people care enough, that is.

One small way that individuals can help out, incidentally, is by adopting a Bengal tiger through the World Wildlife Fund for pounds 2 a month. You'll get a certificate, photograph and quarterly updates on its progress, which presumably will prevent it from being poached.

An important point is that saving the tiger is not just sentimental tosh about the magnificent beasties you see in Castrol television advertisements. It also makes commercial sense, assuming that tourists really are willing to pay a premium to see tigers in the wild. And that goes for the Indian villagers too. Saving the tiger is not merely a Western luxury that they can ill-afford. If the tourism industry could arrange itself in the right way, the villagers too would reap the tourism benefits accruing from the continued presence of wild tigers in India.

By the way, organisations such as Global Tiger Patrol are drawing on the fact that 1998 happens to be the Chinese Year of the Tiger to draw attention to the problem.

There is an irony in this of course. Other than disappearing habitats in India, the Chinese belief that eating tiger penis is good for virility is one of the main reasons why the tiger is in such acute danger today. According to Julian Matthews, poaching to feed the Chinese market takes out at least one tiger per day. Whether the Year of the Tiger will make any difference to the penis-eaters seems improbable.

But surely this is also an area that conservationists should be working on. I would ask all world physicians to write articles suggesting that people who eat tiger penises may be in danger of losing their virility. In fact, I would like to see all tigers receive a vaccination which would result in the penises of the penis-eaters shrivelling up and dropping off. The sad and horrible fact is that such a solution could make a huge difference to the welfare of the tiger.