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Sure, tourists bring money. But cash alone won't save these killer cats. Part one of a series.
BANDHAVGAR AND PANNA NATIONAL PARKS, India — Speeding along in an open jeep deep in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh's Bandhavgar National Park, Kartikeya Singh Chauhan, head naturalist at a nearby resort, skidded to a stop and craned his neck to examine the feather-soft sand of the rutted forest track. “See there,” he said. “Fresh pugmarks.”
A tiger had just passed by.
“Pichey! Pichey!” the forest department guard said sharply. “Back up, back up!”
Kartikeya slammed the jeep into reverse and tore up a gravel incline, then stopped and motioned for silence as we all cocked our heads to listen for the alarm calls of the langur and spotted deer — the sentinels of the forest.
A moment later, we heard the short, chirping bark of a spotted deer. As Kartikeya wheeled the jeep forward again and around a bend in the path, the calls grew louder and more insistent, and then we were face-to-face with the big stag that was sounding the alarm. “They're here,” Kartikeya said. “It's the cubs.”
About 18 months ago, one of the park's tigresses had given birth, and now the two adolescents were trying to teach themselves to hunt. Now we could hear the deer and other game crashing through the brush to escape.
Kartikeya sped down the track after the noise. In a moment, a forest guard pushing a bicycle motioned us from the road. “You just missed them,” he said. “They crossed the path, and they're over there.” He gestured toward the dry slope, forested with teak and sal trees.
Suddenly, a herd of spotted deer bounded across a clearing. “Here he comes,” Kartikeya said.
“He's chasing them.” Then a wild boar darted through the gap in the trees. Close on its heels loped a graceful young tiger.
“Wow!” I said, moronically.
Glimpsing a tiger in the wild has become more and more difficult over the past century, as the great cats' numbers have shrunk from around 40,000 in the era of the Model T to only a little more than 3,500 today. India, home to about half of the surviving tigers, is arguably the best place to make a sighting.
And since the beginning of Indira Gandhi's ambitious “Project Tiger” in 1972, tiger tourism has grown in leaps and bounds. As an industry, it is often credited with creating a financial imperative for conservation — not only of tigers but also of all the jungle species that support them. But many Indian conservationists are skeptical of the tour operators' grand claims
about all the good they are doing.
“Tiger tourism in particular is all about making money,” said Belinda Wright, a former National Geographic photographer who now leads the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Even though there are groups which are talking about better practices and things, we haven't really seen them in action.”