Bengal Tiger
Bengal Tiger WWF

A Supreme Court ruling temporarily banning tourism in India's tiger reserves has sparked a heated debate between conservationists and local tour operators: Could banning tourists help save endangered tiger populations or make things worse?

The two-person panel of the Supreme Court ruled that, effective immediately, tourists can only enter peripheral buffer zones of tiger reserves. Aimed at protecting the endangered animals, the ruling would prohibit visitors from so-called core zones in over 40 reserves.

Several hundred hotels and shops operate within the tiger reserves that cater to wildlife-watching visitors. The decision means that tourists looking forward to hotel stays in the forests will now have to cancel their plans and seek accommodation farther from the reserves.

India is home to over half of the world's remaining tigers, but their population has declined dramatically from around 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to about 1,700 today, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Consequently, conservationist Ajay Dubey filed the case in an attempt to remedy the problem, complaining to the court that authorities in several states had permitted rampant construction of hotels and resorts within the core areas of the reserves.

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, he argued.

Supreme Court justices Swatanter Kumar and Ibrahim Kalifulla agreed.

Why should tourism be permitted in core areas? Whatever statistics may say, the fact remains that the tiger population in the country has diminished, the justices wrote, according to CNN.

India's environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan also welcomed the ruling, saying he would write to all chief ministers asking them to strictly follow the [Supreme Court] directive.

Though it's meant to help protect India's share of the estimated 3,200 tigers remaining in the wild, many believe it could have the reverse effect.

We are devastated with Supreme Court's decision and will file for a review of petition in the interest of the forests of India, the conservation of the tiger population and the livelihoods of many bordering forest communities, said Julian Matthews, chairman of Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT).

Matthews said the decision is fundamentally a retrograde step, choosing poachers, illegal grazers and woodchoppers over a non-extractive mode of preserving wilderness landscape. TOFT claims the highest densities of tigers can be found today in the most heavily-visited tiger reserves, including Bandhavgarh, Corbett and Kaziranga, where sharp-eyed tourists are quick to report any illegal activity by poachers, loggers or farmers.

Belinda Wright, of the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India, agreed, telling AFP, it's like closing the doors and throwing away the keys.

Without the eyes and ears of people, the poachers are going to have a field day, she said.

The Supreme Court will make its final judgment on the matter on August 22.