Responsible tourism on tiger safaris

As of early 2018, there are only around 3,890 tigers left in the wild, worldwide. To put that into perspective, there are more tigers in captivity in the USA than there are in the world’s wilderness areas. There are several issues relating to tiger safaris and to the endangered nature of the species generally. One is the high value put on tigers’ body parts. Their pelts used to be the big seller, but now it is their parts, mostly used in traditional Chinese medicine. The other is the protection of the tiger’s habitats, which must be left pristine not only for the tigers, but for the prey on which they depend for survival. At such a delicate moment in the future of tiger survival, the tourism industry can be a huge lever for change in addressing some of these issues.

Where there's a willy, there's a way

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) goes back to ancient times and included, indeed STILL includes, the use of tigers’ eyes to treat epilepsy, bones to treat rheumatism and the tiger’s brain, for those who don’t have one themselves, for treating acne. However, these remedies were concocted pre-science, and there is still no scientific proof that they work. Famously, the tiger’s penis is also used as an aphrodisiac, served up in soups and sex shops. In addition, all of these conditions, including impotence, have established remedies in Chinese acupuncture and herbal medicine which do not involve the eradication of one of our most precious species. But still the market demand exists and, distressingly, thrives.

It is curious that, even though the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS) asked its members, in 2010, not to use tiger bone or any other parts from endangered wildlife, the demand goes on. Some believe it is the high price that continues to push demand, quite simply because they are now precious and ‘prestigious’ resources that only the rich and privileged can acquire. Which, in a booming economy, means tigers are bust. In Taiwan, a bowl of tiger penis soup can cost up to $300, and a pair of eyes $170. Powdered tiger bone costs up to $1,450 for 0.5 kg in Seoul, with demand growing hugely in South Korea. See Tigers in crisis for more details.

Some say that there is nothing we can do to change this demand for tiger parts in TCM. However, with Chinese tourists becoming much more widely travelled now, there are many more opportunities to engage and educate through travel. If you are travelling with a Chinese tourist on a tiger safari, for example, don’t be afraid to raise the subject. The controversy is well known in China and, of course, not everyone in China agrees with this trade. Indeed, Chinese celebrities have gone very public with their message to stop buying these products. Such as Jackie Chan and NBA basketball star Yao Ming who have campaigned on behalf of WildAid with the headline “when the buying stops, the killing does too”. And it is hard to imagine that any Chinese tourist on a tiger safari would ever want to see these beautiful creatures cut up for parts. But with engagement and debate, we can all encourage them to spread the word.
What you can do
Support lobbying charities such as WWF, Born Free and WildAid. It is vital, however, that we also support the responsible tiger safari industry, so that people do not have to poach and kill in order to make a living. A very useful website is the Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT), which not only leads strong campaigns for responsible tiger tourism in India, but has also developed a rating system that measures the ‘footprint’ of individual lodges and hotels in India’s wilderness regions, called the PUG Rating. They also list highly reputable tiger charities which tourists can support. Another exciting development is that you can engage with the modern technology put in place by India’s Tiger Nation. By uploading your photos or video footage, sharing them on social media, you can get immediate identification information, and thus add to scientific databases immediately. This is a brilliant resource to check out before you travel too.
Paul Goldstein , top tiger safari guide and expert at one of our leading suppliers, Exodus: “This is an animal we are likely to lose in our lifetime and the blame has a face, and that face is China. Traditional medicine has so much to blame for the loss of tigers in the wild, but actually the poachers aren’t being punished on the ground either. We can’t take on the Chinese traditions and behaviour, where the demand for highly priced tiger parts is highest. But we can stop the poaching. And tourism is one way to do that. Shooting them is another but does not happen in Asia. I saw my first tiger in 1999 in Ranthambore, but it may as well have been this morning as I can remember every moment. Sadly, that tiger’s pelt is now on the back of someone in China, its bones crushed and its penis made into soup.”

Tigers in Crisis: “Consuming tiger parts for medicinal purposes is not limited to Asia. A recent World Wildlife Fund investigation in England of Chinese chemists, craft shops and supermarkets in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool showed that half the shops sold products claiming to contain tiger bone.”

Thailand's tiger temple

The Tiger Temple in Thailand was a well-known tourist hot spot, claiming to be a sanctuary for 17 rescued tigers. In fact, investigations revealed that there were over 100 tigers there, often drugged and put in chains so they could be petted by tourists. The level of care was highly questionable and there was no evidence of any conservation going on. In May 2016, Thai police and wildlife authorities raided the site to investigate allegations of illegal breeding and trafficking of tigers and their body parts. Tragically, the bodies of 40 newborn tiger cubs were discovered in a freezer during the raid. The authorities closed the site and rehomed the animals in state-owned sanctuaries.

Investigations into links between Tiger Temple and the illegal wildlife trade are still ongoing. Worryingly, recent reports suggest that a new zoo is to open next door to the disgraced temple. World Animal Protection reported that Golden Tiger Co has a provisional license to operate as a zoo, and launched a petition to prevent a full license being granted. Read more in our Tiger Temple article.

Philip Mansbridge, CEO of Care for the Wild International: "If you think Tiger Temple is some kind of spiritual tiger sanctuary, it isn't. If you think abused tigers find safe sanctuary here, or that the tigers will be released into the wild, they won't be. If you think that a tiger wants to live in a small bare cage, have a chain around its neck and have tourists sit on its back, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. And if you think that, on the off-chance you might get injured, your insurance will cover you – it won't.”

Elephant trekking on tiger safaris

Elephants are still used in a few of India’s national parks as a way to see tigers on safari. As you can see from our Elephant Trekking guide, riding elephants for tourism purposes is not something we support at Responsible Travel.
There are several problems associated with using elephants for tiger safaris, also known as ‘tiger shows’ Firstly, these are quick, ‘drive through’ style safaris, where you are ushered into the forest quickly to see a tiger, and then quickly ushered out again so that the next tourist can jump on. Second, you are generally not guided by a nature expert, but by a mahout or elephant trainer whose only job is to communicate with the elephant, sometimes harshly, rather than with the tourist.
Thirdly, elephants being used for this purpose are sometimes mistreated, shackled and trained with implements such as bullhooks. They may also be stressed by being forced to get close to tigers, something they would not normally do out of choice. And, fourthly, tigers are much more disturbed by fellow creatures of the jungle in their natural habitats, than by jeeps, which have to stop on nearby roads, and don’t trample over their dens and hideaways. Thankfully, however, jeep safaris, are much more prevalent these days, and in Nepal, there are many more safaris on foot as well. With no one using a bullhook to get you to move.
Julian Matthews , founder and chair of tourism action charity Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFTigers) and Tiger Nation, both aiming to use tourism to support tiger conservation more effectively:

“In India, if you go on an elephant to see tigers you are generally with a mahout, or an elephant driver. Usually, he can’t speak English and is unlikely to be an expert naturalist. Which makes the whole thing much more of a passive nature experience in India, as you can’t ask questions about the wildlife. You often have a few minutes on the elephant’s back, take two or three pictures, and then come back again. You might have 60 tourists getting on the back of a fleet of elephants every few minutes - a pretty uninspiring way to view tigers really.“

Responsible tourism tips

Find a responsible tour operator. Responsible Travel has spent considerable time screening all the tour providers listed on our site, and has transparent responsible travel policies. We also publish unedited, warts-and-all reviews of our guests experiences which frequently include conservation issues. Because of the demand for tiger watching there are more mini buses, called canters, going through some of the big national parks now, such as Ranthambhore. This isn’t ideal for the environment or habitats but it is good for generating conservation income, which is the ever present fine line in responsible tourism debates. The policy on minibuses varies per state in India. If you go to some of the smaller parks such as Tadoba or Bandhavgarh National Parks, jeep numbers are limited and no minibuses are allowed. You will also have a more pleasant tiger watching experience from a jeep than from the back of a bus. Interpretation on Indian tiger safaris is still limited, especially compared with wildlife safaris in Africa. The national park rangers are seen more as crowd controllers in some places, giving people instructions on where to go and what to do rather than sharing environmental and conservation knowledge. This is something that needs to change at educational institution level, and something that organisations like TOFTigers is working towards.
The maximum speed limit within national parks, particularly in India, is 20km per hour. Your driver should never exceed this. Always keep noise to a minimum when on a tiger safari. Disturbed wildlife such as tiger, bear and India bison may attack your vehicle if unduly startled. This also means turning off your mobile phone. One of the best things you can do is report any bad practice on the part of operators. You don’t have to have a degree in nature conservation to realise that a guide or driver is not acting appropriately. There are so many ways of spreading good and bad word, using TripAdvisor and social media, or reporting an incident through TOFTigers which might be able to point you in the right direction. And if you can take photos or videos as proof of unethical guiding, that will help too.
Belinda Wright, OBE, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI):

“Responsible tourism is a critical issue that needs to be practised and supported by visitors. Follow the Code of Conduct of the park authorities and the resorts (most of the best wildlife resorts have one), support local arts and crafts and local community efforts, and be sure to ask your hosts about their eco-friendly, sustainable tourism practices. The Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFT) is India's voice for responsible tourism in tiger wilderness areas. They carry out audits and award PUG certificates using an eco-rating system.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Annie Spratt] [Tiger by water: Hans Veth] [Chinese pharmacy: Michael O'Connell-Davidson] [Elephant trekking: Matteo] [Tiger mania: Sankara Subramanian]