|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 14, 2012--BILONA KALAN, India -- Amit Jaiswal sits in the darkened dining room of his Tiger Treat Resorts in a glum mood. After pooling his family savings, taking out a large loan and checking with his astrologer for an auspicious name, he opened in December here on the main road to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve.
The rather grandiose pillared white building has a gift shop selling key chains and curly toed leather shoes, and the 80-seat dining room serving breakfast, lunch and "deener" -- double e's are good, his soothsayer said.
Their first few months went well, with up to 200 tourists a day, drawn in part by the only proper toilet for miles. Last month, however, India's Supreme Court banned all tourism in so-called core areas of India's 41 tiger parks in a bid to protect the national animal.
That has been bad news for hotels and resorts just outside the Ranthambhore park. Summer is low season as heavy monsoon rains set in, so the full impact hasn't been felt. But Tiger Treat, with its staff of five, is down to two or three tourists a day. At this rate, Jaiswal, 33, fears he'll have to sell out, without much hope of recouping the $200,000 investment beyond the value of the land.
"It came like a bolt of lightning," he said, standing near an array of dusty souvenirs. "It looks all but over for us."
Although disputes over unchecked development are nothing new, even many environmentalists think the judges are misguided, however well-intentioned, in their efforts to protect the tigers from extinction. Some even suggest the court was lashing out in frustration because 10 states had ignored its order in April to file plans for protective buffer zones around the parks.
Banning tourists is not the solution, critics say. Vehicle traffic, whether by tourists or forest rangers, provides more eyes and ears against poachers who slaughter wildlife for body parts, which command high prices in China for use in traditional medicine and aphrodisiacs.
Until the ban, for instance, the Ranthambhore park limited tourist vehicles to 80 a day and levied a tax to help fund forest patrols. Residents who worked in the tourism business say the proof is in the numbers: In 2005-06, the park had 26 tigers. Despite more tourism, the population is now 53, including at least 25 cubs.
Tourism also gives residents a stake in tiger preservation, the critics say, provided hotels don't block corridors linking wildlife sanctuaries. Many villagers who were kicked off their land to create the reserves were promised tourism jobs and could grow resentful, leading to more poaching and social unrest.
Others point to poor management by the government agencies meant to protect the animals.
"I think history has shown you can't keep protection of tiger reserves entirely up to the forestry department," said Belinda Wright, executive director of New Delhi's Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Many, many Indian reserves are virtually empty of tigers, often with virtually no tourism. Tourists offer an extra degree of protection."
Some say the real reason for the court's decision was pique.
Tiger reserves are supposed to have a core area that no one but forestry officials enter, surrounded by buffer land that can be visited by tourist vehicles, with hotels and other commercial development outside the park. In April, the court ordered 13 states with tiger parks to file their zoning plans. Only three complied, amid difficulties creating the buffers related to land acquisition, compensation for relocated villagers and local politics.
In late July, the court reacted with the blanket interim ban. Although it's scheduled to review its decision this month, residents are bracing for the worst.
Yadvendra Singh, head of an impromptu "Tigers and Tourism" committee formed by several hundred Ranthambhore-area drivers, shop owners and guides, whips out a map to illustrate the gap between theory and reality.
To meet the court's demands, state officials earmarked a "buffer" around Ranthambhore's core reserve. But it's a desert with no real flora, fauna or prey, he said, is mined extensively for gravel and is located about 35 miles from the main park. Any tiger trying to reach it would have to cross roads, residential neighborhoods and shopping districts.
"They'd have to make arrangements with KLM airlines," said Singh, a private guide. "It's not our mistake that angered the court, it's the honorable officers. But we're the ones who suffer."
Dharm Khandal, a field biologist with the civic group Tiger Watch, agrees. "The plans should be site-specific," Khandal said. "There are so many loopholes in the guidelines."
The real problem, say some conservationists, is poor management. Some forestry officials don't control park access, have little interest in the work, cater to VIPs, even assist poachers for a cut. Poachers reduced the tiger population in the Sariska and Panna parks to zero around 2005 even as officials insisted for years that dozens remained.
South Africa and Kenya, among other African countries, have used well-managed tourist programs and higher access fees to fund conservation programs, spur their local economies and fight poaching.
Various Indian federal and state forestry officials claimed until a few years ago, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that India had 5,000 tigers. A more realistic census in 2010 put the figure around 1,706. Although that's a jump from the estimated 1,411 in 2008, it's a fraction of the 45,000 or so from a century ago.
Following media outcry and a transplant program, Sariska now has at least six, including a cub born in early August.
Other than tiger tourism, the Ranthambhore-area economy has little beyond wheat and mustard-seed farming, residents say, and even that's dicey given limited rainfall.
These days, Tiger Treat's Jaiswal spends his days hoping the court reverses itself, doing basic maintenance and watching television. "I like to watch comedies," he said. "It helps keep my spirits up."
Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.
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