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A British tour guide was attacked by a leopard in the Kruger National Park in South Africa this week. The leopard was 6ft away when tourists on the safari vehicle lost sight of it. The leopard went around to the driver’s side and leapt at the guide, biting deep into his arm. Another vehicle drove at full speed over the big cat, injuring it in the leg. Finally, Curtis Plumb, the guide, was rescued and operated on while the leopard was euthanized by the park authorities.

Following the incident, social media was abuzz on who was really to blame—the tourists who drove too close to the animal, possibly antagonizing it, or the leopard for attacking the guide. Such an incident could happen in India as well. It brings to light the ongoing debate about how many tourists should be allowed inside wildlife parks and at what distance should they be allowed to view the animals.

At a panel discussion in Bengaluru at the Nature inFocus festival this week, I asked a hall full of wildlife photographers and scientists whether tourism should be banned in national parks. Not one hand from the audience shot up. Not surprising, given that the room was full of people who spent most of their time in the forests. On the panel, Bittu Sahgal, founding editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine, lamented that we needed to change the way tourism was happening—it was neither helping generate livelihoods nor helping save the forests.

Ornithologist Bikram Grewal was perhaps the only one who said tourism should be banned in national parks, at least till we set things right. Cricketer Anil Kumble (few know that he has served on the state board of wildlife of Karnataka and is passionate about wildlife) had a suggestion. In order to manage the increasing pressure of tourists, it was perhaps time to set up a separate wing in the forest department to handle tourist traffic.

It was an interesting suggestion, one that got me thinking. Would a separate cadre help the forest department do their job better or to focus on their primary task of protecting the forest? Certainly, I have in my years of visiting national parks come across forest officers harangued by VIP requests for safaris and entertaining their families. One forest officer recalls how he was asked to arrange a chocolate cake in the middle of a national park on the request of a VIP because it was his child’s birthday.

The fact is Indians are turning to wildlife tourism like never before. That’s led to a mini industry of its own. From niche magazines like The Outdoor Journal and Saevus to resorts mushrooming on the fringe of every national park in the country, there is a boom in this sector. Wildlife biologist Krithi Karanth, in a study in 2010 found that tourists in just three major parks had grown from less than 10,000 people per year to more than 170,000 over a 15-year period. Despite this growth, less than that 0.001% of people living within 10km of a park received direct income from tourism, and such revenue was rarely directed towards improving conservation efforts.

While the ill effects of tourism are well known, Karnataka has been one state that has set the pace for wildlife tourism. The Jungle Lodges & Resorts, established in partnership with the forest department, runs 16 properties across Karnataka, making it India’s largest chain of resorts in wildlife tourism. With this initiative, Karnataka has shown how a government enterprise can contribute to responsible tourism.

Karnataka is also the only state in the country to add more areas for forest protection to its list, unlike other states that are constantly reducing area under forest cover. One state which could learn to market its wildlife tourism better is Odisha; its beaches play host to the mass nesting of thousands of turtles, a spectacle seen only in two other parts of the world, yet the state has not promoted this enough.

The challenges for wildlife tourism are many. A more inclusive model of wildlife tourism that focuses not just on the elite, but the backpackers and the middle class is needed. And I am still waiting for that one tourism company that offers to take people who live on the edge of the park, who made space for wildlife by relocating outside, to be given a free tour of the park.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.

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