THE JUNGLE BOOK & THE POWERFUL TIGERNOMICS OF SHER KHAN

Julian Matthews

Tigermania is not new. It’s been around for millennia. Hindu gods have ridden them for eons, and humans have been alternatively worshipping or terrorised by them throughout human history. The difference today is that in today’s islands of wilderness, the remnants of India’s great forests, many have learn to live with them nearby, even tolerate them, effectively exploiting them for monetary gain.

A lot has changed since Rudyard Kipling penned his famous set of stories entitled the Jungle Book in the 1890’s. The English Empire has gone, so have huge swathes of those famous verdant jungles and the vast majority of its tigers with them. Thankfully some things haven’t changed; Disney is reinventing its old 1967 hit favourite with today’s extraordinary computer aided graphics, for launch in April this year.
Thankfully, and in the real world, grumpy Sher Khans still live near the town of Saone, the boy child Mowgli’s home. There are still rare black panthers – really melanistic leopards – or Bagheeras in the southern Indian forests. Elusive slim legged wolves, aka Akela, still live amongst the villagers of the central Indian plateau, and cuddly Baloos, sloth bears, still look for honey in branches of tall Arjuna trees besides softly flowing waters of jungle nallahs, or streams. lot has changed since Rudyard Kipling penned his famous set of stories entitled the Jungle Book in the 1890’s. The English Empire has gone, so have huge swathes of those famous verdant jungles and the vast majority of its tigers with them. Thankfully some things haven’t changed; Disney is reinventing its old 1967 hit favourite with today’s extraordinary computer aided graphics, for launch in April this year.

Though Rudyard Kipling wrote his stories without having seen many of his imaginary and irrepressibly creatures in these jungles. This was not altogether surprising, few did see them. Tigers were still shot on sight as vermin, and many of the other animals formed part of the diets of tribal communities who were then still hunter gatherers. To reveal themselves in daylight, either to the white faced, topi wearing white hunters on their elephants, or the skilled trackers of forest hunters was almost certain death. Night time was their time to be out and about, not daytime.

Today in the best protected and most visited parks, many of its wild animals, especially the carnivores, can exist and carry out their lives in daylight without the dreaded fear of guns or poisoned arrows. So habituated are many of the tigers to the advent of us camera laden travellers in our gypsy vehicles that one tigress even parks her cubs nearby when visitors find her, and happily wanders off to find food, while another uses the line of vehicles to ambush prey nearby, ensuring memorable photographs for grateful visitors.

Like many writers, Rudyard Kipling anthropomorphised his characters giving them a range of distinct personalities. Now nearly 40 years of continuous study and almost daily contact with their once arch enemy, homo sapiens, reveals just what personalities they each exhibit and just how often they mirror many of our very own human characteristics; extrovert or introvert, gregarious or sombre, brave or shy, tender or callous, impetuous or sensible. Krishna, a tigress labelled T19 by authorities in Ranthambhore, was born in one of India’s most majestic wild landscapes.

Brought up with her sisters like the spoilt offspring of a rock star, she lived amongst the lotus flowered lakes, ruined forts and palaces, in the glare of media, daily rounds of visitors, and countless pilgrims wandering through her neighbourhood. A first class mother, tender and caring, she enjoys her stardom, and has always been happy to show off her offspring to her endless fans. On the other side, in Maharashtra’s Tadoba Andhari reserve is an old male tiger, appropriately nicknamed Scarface, with a scarred ugly face that would perfectly grace any mafia’s family, is the exact opposite. Grumpy and temperamental, he is though like most mafia Godfathers, a strong family man. Beware the creatures that may threaten his wifelets and their family. His offspring now form the backbone of this little known reserve.

Tigermania is not new. It’s been around for millennia. Hindu gods have ridden them for eons, and humans have been alternatively worshipping or terrorised by them throughout human history. The difference today is that in today’s islands of wilderness, the remnants of India’s great forests, many have learn to live with them nearby, even tolerate them, effectively exploiting them for monetary gain. I call it Tigernomics, but many derogatorily call it tiger tourism. I believe, far from being the great scourge that it is still portrayed by forest departments, media and NGOs across the continent, tiger tourism will be a tiger’s saviour. If we can’t change the capitalist system then let’s work with it. It’s simply about supply and demand – and how we can make wildlife worth far more alive than dead.

There is a rapidly expanding demand for nature based tourism in India, travellers like you and I, willing to pay for living breathing wild tigers, herds of elephant and unspoilt beaches where Olive Ridley turtles can nest. It’s already growing at up to 25% per annum in India, with up to four millions people a year partaking, but this is only the tip of the ice- berg. TOFTigers’ research in 2010 concluded that a single tigress in a well visited reserve had generated US$101 million in park fees and tourism revenues in a decade. When it only costs a few thousand dollars a year to preserve this tigress’s territory in the wild, this huge ‘rate of return’ – the ROI in an economist’s handbook – is a figure no self-respecting Government can possibly ignore, and more a more millions of Indian seek to view their national treasure. The global nature tourism industry is now worth close to US$450 billion a year.

So we know nature tourism can create the economic value that today’s forests need to survive the politicians red pen, but it funds can halt poor agricultural practices, rapidly decrease poaching and the depletion of forest from overgrazing livestock with alternative livelihoods, and provide powerful economic arguments to stop exploitative industries like forestry or mining from gaining access to wild lands.

Nature tourism can raise the voices of a few lonely forest guardians to a great crescendo of concerned stakeholders, turns the media spotlight and visitors’ eyeballs onto once unloved forests, gets their park guards out of bed every morning, and makes civil servants and politicians accountable like no other force can. Importantly it is a massive behavioural change mechanism. It can turn many rural communities from wildlife antagonists to conservation advocates, create jobs and local enterprises where few existed for these marginalised farming communities, buffeted by wildlife conflict, to join the brave new modern India.

Now what’s the catch?  The supply.

In fact there is no supply problem either. There are in fact over 617 national parks and sanctuaries in India, according to the 2013 figures of the Environment and Forest Ministry, but can you believe it, the vast majority were allocated only US$1,600 a month to their protection. Peanuts?  Yes, and you tell me if preserving a whole park full of irreplaceable natural heritage – a bulwark against climate change and a source for both clean air and water – is really only worth the monthly wage packet of a middle ranking Bangalore based IT professional?

Nature tourism in India is by no means perfect but in many well-known parks like Ranthambhore in Rajasthan, and Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, visitors’ park fees are already doubling or tripling the budgets that park managers have to protect the park and support their neighbouring communities. It’s still far too few parks and it’s still too unevenly spread – but it shows us the power of the future to transform landscape tiger.

Many lodge providers still need major improvements to their environmental sustainability, far better land use and tourism planning is required by Government and planners, more constructive partnerships with Forest officers is essential, and a fairer distribution of the opportunities and job benefits to bordering park communities, but it still works.

Nature tourism is, nevertheless, already providing the much needed bonding – the very glue – that makes long term forest conservation possible and economically viable, against a deafening crescendo of calls for nature’s destruction, to be replaced by concrete development, fences, farms and dams.  Research today shows that over 75% of all visitors want more responsible holidays and 93% of nature travellers say travel companies should be committed to preserving natural heritage, so we now do have both better supply and ongoing demand.

Yes, tigers cannot survive without their protection staff, good management and large enough natural landscapes, but they will not thrive and expand without nature tourism’s invaluable economics, its visitors’ ‘hearts on their sleeve’ consciences, and communities willing to fight for living wildlife, because a tiger’s worth more to them alive than dead.

Now both Mowgli and I really can grow up to manhood (or in my case old age) with hope for his animal family into the future.

FACT BOX

Julian Matthews is founder of the nature travel action charity, TOFTigers, and has spent a decade working on these issues. The charity operating a supply chain pressure programme, to drive up operational standards and highlight the very best accommodation provider in over 22 tiger reserves across India and Nepal.

Download the Good Wildlife Travel Guide here www.toftigers.org/GWTGdownload/

TOFTigers runs the PUG eco rating certification to monitor lodges’ ecological footprint and working with parks, communities, guides and visitors to raise awareness, fund village guardian schemes, undertake training and campaign for better nature tourism and greater conservation support.

For more details contact www.toftigers.org.

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