Tiger by the Tail

Tiger by the Tail
Representative Image: A tiger in its natural habitat, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge negative impact on tourism, including wildlife tourism. What does the tourism lockout imply for our national animal?

Julian Matthews
May 13 , 2020
09 Min Read

It’s only a few months ago we were celebrating the remarkable story of the bounce back of one of the world’s most loved—and feared—creatures, the Royal Bengal Tiger. From an estimated low of 1,400 in 2004, the Indian government and its forest departments went into overdrive and have turned around the animal’s dire extinction predictions, and reported a doubling of wild tigers across India’s forests in July last year. With a tsunami of environmental horror stories over the last decade—here at last was great news.

Could this all be about to collapse thanks to the latest threat to humanity—COVID-19—and the social and economic lockdown that is the tragic result?


“No, not yet, but it’s already having an impact,” says Dr G.V. Reddy, the stalwart Principle Chief Conservator of Rajasthan. “It’s a problem, from earning Rs 25 crores (US$3.3 million) from Ranthambhore park gate fees alone, that helps us pay for livestock kill compensation, village works and park protection, to suddenly having to pay a lot of it back. This is not good for us, or for the thousands of our bordering communities who now have no income from tourism. This is not yet a problem—but it can’t last for too long.”

Tourists overlooking the tiger at Ranthambore

The good news is that the forest departments across India are exempt from the travel restrictions, and so the guarding, intelligence and protection can go on as before, but will need added intensity and surveillance over the coming weeks.

The more worrying threat is now more from the outside than the inside of many of India’s parks and tiger reserves. The parks themselves are shuttered to the outside world, and now left in relative peace from both visitors and locals under lockdown, but millions of migrant workers, that had flocked to the cities for work have been forced to return back to their villages without work or income, and the temptation for them to go back to bushmeat—wild pig, nilgai and spotted deer—to provide protein, will be a real threat as the coming weeks of lockdown continue [at the time of writing]. Crude snares and electric wires around fields can take a rapid toll at night for herbivores determined to eat their crops as the grasses wither in the heat.

Dr Ullas Karanth, one of India’s leading wildlife scientists, has already highlighted this threat in his latest blog: 

In some of the best tiger habitats in the Western Ghats, there appears to be a surge in local poaching, with hunting of tiger’s prey species ratcheting up, because patrol intensity and protection have declined under the lockdown. Unemployed rural workers, deprived of wages and sources of domestic animal protein, are once again turning to wild meat as was the case in the 1950s and ’60s. The police being busy otherwise and forest officials facing constraints of movement are emboldening a new wave of poachers, as recent reports from Kodagu and Shivamogga show. This resurgence of poaching, once unleashed, will be hard to prosecute and control.

Hashim Tyabji, locked down in his home on the borders of a park in Madhya Pradesh, highlighted another problem that has everybody worried. “Our local supplier of milk has had two of his cows killed by Bandhavgarh’s tigers recently, and monetary compensation—instantly paid when visitor revenues poured through the park gates—has not be so quick or so generous, and his income from milk has evaporated. The reality for him is simple. The next cow that gets killed by one of the park’s tigers may have to be poisoned. What choice does he have than to kill the animal to protect his stock?”

Living with large predators as your neighbours is easier when your livelihood depends on these wild cats being alive, and being able to earn your daily living from them. This has been a key reason why so many tiger parks in India have found it so much easier to protect them, than those that have not had this monetary economy to help conserve them. 

Today there remains a chasm between those protected areas that benefitted from the advent of a nature-based tourism sector, a new economic stimuli in a number of remote and often marginal farming communities, themselves once victims of everyday conflict with wildlife in their farmlands, and those parts of the country where security, politics or division has ensured the benefits of this economy have failed to materialise. Such states include Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the Northeastern tribal states, which have few tigers left in their parks, and poaching remains a real issue, with or without lockdown. My own visit to Simlipal reserve in Odisha was heart-breaking in its absence of mammal sightings, especially prey species, or even birdlife that this glorious sal forest ecosystem should be able to maintain. The reason was obvious to me as I drove out of the park at dusk; a large hunting party with snares and bows were walking in the opposite direction. 

The Royal Bengal White Tiger in Nandankanan, Bhubaneswar

Most other tiger-range nations outside of South Asia are suffering the same extinction fate, including Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Southeast Asia. Few have any nature dependent economies that can turn around local villagers’ needs to survive off their wilderness landscapes, except by poaching, extracting produce and wood felling. Take Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, once part of Southeast Asia’s vast cradle of nature, a veritable ‘Serengeti of Asia’ that included swathes of Vietnam and Laos. As I walked through these open woodlands, I was reminded of the Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Similar tree species and similar fauna; yet it was altogether more unsettling. It was absolutely quiet. It was dying. It had stopped reproducing itself. Much like COVID-19 patients today, the forest was in planetary intensive care. It had been ravaged by unsustainable poaching and extraction. Was it possible, WWF personnel had asked me, to reintroduce tigers back to these forests as a way of ‘kick starting’ nature and tourism again? My answer was no—not until fundamentals had been undertaken: poaching stopped, rewilding started, prey species restored, and alternative livelihood options generated for locals.

A Sumatran tiger in Indonesia

The visionary Indian Prime Minister and founder of Project Tiger in 1973, Indira Gandhi correctly stated, “Unless we are in a position to provide for those that live in and around our forests, we cannot prevent them for poaching and despoiling our vegetation.” So it proved, till an economy that was non-extractive and dependent on nature itself could be invented to change the lives of rural communities. My own organisation, TOFTigers calculated in 2010 that a single wild tigress generates over US$100 million in local revenue in her lifetime, from the hundreds of thousands of visitors who had the privilege to view her in her wild habitat. Machali, as our research tigress was called, had become tiger royalty across the globe by the time she died in 2016, and wild tigers had gone from being worthless to being invaluable alive—rather than dead.

Recent studies which TOFTigers have funded, and undertaken by an eminent tiger ecologist, Dr Raghu Chundawat, have complimented these original studies, highlighting for example that Madhya Pradesh’s nature tourism industry in four key parks was worth over US$25.94 million in direct revenues from park fees, lodgings and other services and employed 2,526 people, 82% of who were local from bordering park communities. Importantly villagers who had had the benefit of tourism revenues and employment were up to seven times better off than their neighbouring villages without such tourism’s economies, and had better health and enjoyed better education too. Tigernomics, as I have called it, was working—and working well for conservation and many communities.

As our social media feed is filled with visuals of wild animals including herds of elephants trampling up high streets and ambling along dual carriageways, regaining lost lands, the question that still remains is: Can we use this pandemic as a trumpet call to change exactly where humanity is heading? Has this pandemic taught us what visionaries and conservationists have been saying for decades? Our forests are dying, our air is polluted, our soil’s fertility is poor and our natural habitat is collapsing. The atrocious wildlife trade has caused this pandemic—so let’s start right here to stop it and let nature have an equitable place on our planet and in our hearts again. 

For 30 years, since the founding of Project Tiger in 1973, governments and NGOs had worked frantically to save the downward spiral of wild tiger numbers, but it took the ‘money bags’ of nature tourism, since the start of the new millennium, to help governments turn the tide on extinction. Its arrival had given Indian and Nepal a reason to be cheerful about wild tigers’ future in their ancestral forests. It’s now hugely ironic that one of the major economic sectors, travel and tourism—that has so fundamentally changed the likely survival of this species, and today provides a new economic stimulus to restore, conserve and rewild across the globe—is also one of the guilty parties in both climate change and biodiversity loss. Who could ever have predicted such a calamitous event affecting air travel and tourism so rapidly and so dramatically than the situation we find ourselves in today.

East African wildlife: Elephants walking in front of Kilimanjaro mountain

However, unlike East African wildlife destinations, the tourism behind India’s tiger conservation stimulus is mostly domestic, with far fewer carbon-emitting air miles, those same carbon pollutants that have helped to block out views of the snow-capped Himalaya for a whole generation of Gangetic plain dwellers—until just a week ago.

However, we simply cannot, indeed must not, go back to the travel and tourism ‘business as usual’ after this. Planetary sustainability must be our guiding mantra.

If societal, political and behavioural change towards sustaining our nature world is the likely outcome of this worldwide lockdown, then it will all have been worth it—however costly the medicine.

Julian Matthews is founder and chairman of the collective travel action charity based in New Delhi, TOFTigers


Thank you for the interesting and informative articleMore could be done for the increase I population of the Bengal Tigers in the tiger reserves in IndiaI understand this is important for the economy of the country,working towards this and as you say "Planetary sustainability" is the only mantra post Co vid !
Christabel Edwards October 23 , 2020

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