Will a ban on tourism help India's tigers?
India's Supreme Court banned tourists from core zones in tiger reserves on Tuesday to protect the endangered big cats.
It would seem like an obvious move -- reduced human access should lead to more intact wildlife habitats. However, the decision has provoked mixed reactions among conservationists and tour operators.
A two-person panel of the Supreme Court ruled that tourists can only enter peripheral buffer zones of tiger reserves, up to 10 kilometers away from core areas. The temporary restriction goes into effect immediately.
Toby Sinclair, vice president for the Ecotourism Society of India, told CNN he believes the government is allowing too many visitors into the parks.
"The eco in ecotourism has changed to economy," Sinclair said.
Conservationists who are against the ban are concerned that wildlife trafficking will increase as tourists empty out of reserves and poachers can move about freely without worry of being seen.
Some anti-ban groups further argue that forests not frequented by tourists have all but lost their tigers.
"The highest densities of tigers can be found today in the most heavily visited tiger reserves," said a statement from Travel Operators for Tigers.
India is home to more than half the world's tigers. An estimated 1,706 of them -- according to the World Wildlife Fund -- roam India today, compared to 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.
There are 40 tiger reserves across the country, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India. Tiger reserves are set up throughout India to provide a protected environment for animals still in the wild. Resorts and villages were set up for tourists, local as well as foreign, to see the tiger habitats and perhaps catch a glimpse of the big cat.
Some states, such as Madhya Pradesh, with six tiger reserves, will be hit hard by the ban on tiger tourism.
Following the ban, hundreds of tourists who were looking forward to staying in hotels within the forests will have to cancel their plans and book other rooms outside of the core areas.
The ban is temporary, pending the court's final decision on a case filed by conservationist Ajay Dube demanding a ban on all commercial acitivity from core areas of tiger reserves. The court is expected to release its final ruling on August 22.
“I am aware that tourists will not be able to see the best parts of Kanha or Bandhavgarh. But for the sort of pressure tourism was exerting on tigers, I think it is a small price to pay,” says Dube.
The judges are so far sympathetic to Dube's argument.
“Why should tourism be permitted in core areas? Whatever statistics may say, the fact remains that the tiger population in the country has diminished,” says a Supreme Court bench of justices Swatanter Kumar and Ibrahim Kalifulla.
Six states were fined for failing to declare buffer zones around core tiger reserve forests.
The decision is not expected to have major immediate impact on tourism as many tiger reserves are closed during the monsoon.
If the ban remains in place, however, it is expected to have a significant impact on the livelihoods of communities in and around the reserves whose income depends on wildlife tourism.
Read more on CNN: Indian Supreme Court places temporary ban on tiger tourism
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