TOFTigers… a roaring success

| April 21, 2015

As TOFTigers celebrates 10 years campaigning to protect the Indian tiger, founder Julian Matthews reviews the charity’s success.

Tiger in Ranthambore

As India’s great leader Mahatma Gandhi once said: “All things are possible until they are proved impossible.” It was with these words in my heart that, a decade ago, I started a campaigning wildlife charity called TOFTigers, such was my belief that I could change the world of the tiger. It was a heady mixture of sublime idealism and blind arrogance given the harsh realities of an India undergoing fundamental change, at a pace that beggared belief, and with tiger numbers in freefall … but I had to give it a go. 

India’s conservation efforts were at a low point in 2005. After the early successes of the 1970s and 80s, the country’s efforts at protecting its unique wildlife and forests were grinding to a grim halt. Bengal tiger numbers were thought to be as low as 1,400. The media predicted the imminent demise of this most noble of carnivores, while forest officials and politicians blamed each other’s incompetence for the collapse. And in India’s most famous tiger reserve, Ranthambore – the very emblem of tiger preservation – just three males and six females remained.

Lone tiger

Turn the clock forward a decade and India’s tiger numbers have bounced back from the brink. Figures released by the forestry department this January show an increase of 70% in tiger numbers to 2,344 (or thereabouts, given the complexity of counting tigers across 300,000 sq km of jungle). In a world dominated by bad environmental news stories, is this a sign that India is getting to grips with protecting its most famous poster boy?

Much of the credit for this astonishing turnaround goes to the forest department, now better run, better funded and more accountable than ever before. There’s also been a rise in domestic tourism, with Indians increasingly enjoying their own natural heritage. However, the one industry that still fails to get the credit due is nature tourism.

Lost in a tide of ‘India’s tigers saved’ media coverage was a ground breaking and potentially game-changing report, also published by the forestry department. In What Tiger Reserves Add to the Economy, clever scientists in khaki calculated the ‘natural capital’ derived from a range of tiger reserves, as well as the economic, social, cultural and spiritual benefits. The conclusions overwhelmingly show that investing in a country’s natural assets gives fabulous returns. The natural benefits of the reserves and their forests are often intangible but irreplaceable, including gene pool retention, clear water, pollination, mitigation of climate change and places of refuge for flora and fauna. The study also calculated the tangible elements so critical to the wellbeing of society, including employment generation, fuel, grazing, recreational tourism, and previously uncalculated benefits such as the spiritual and mental health benefits from visits to the reserves. Adding it all up in, for example, a reserve like Kanha – a favourite place for many to experience the wild – it was found to generate £216 million per annum in economic benefit, with the top six reserves adding a staggering £800 million per year.

In Africa there is a conservationist’s mantra: ‘If it pays, it stays’. Similarly India’s tigers and their forests are being saved, not only by better protection and management practices, but by park fee revenues, as well as the creation of jobs and enterprises to cater for the millions of visitors photographing and then falling in love with India’s wild landscapes.

Tiger Ranthambore NP

It’s been a spectacular roller coaster of a ride for me and my TOFTigers charity over the last decade, as an active participant among a den of tiger conservationists and forest officials. It’s an opinionated, fractious and vocal menagerie of characters who dominate the tiger frontline, with a host of differing ideas as to how to win the war to protect tigers, as well as the biodiverse kingdom this feline reigns over.

TOFTigers’ decade old message – that nature tourism is a critical component of tiger conservation – has been a thoroughly tough message to convey to both diehard protectionists and many park directors who would prefer such tourism to their parks simply disappeared. But today I can finally see the light at the end of this long tunnel, with tiger numbers up 30% in just four years and park authorities, local communities, providers and nature lovers alike recognising that they are not mutually exclusive. Collective action and partnership is the new mantra, and India’s prime minster, Narendra Modi, has laid out a tourism blueprint for the future.

TOFTigers over the last ten years has sought to not only influence this debate, but invented some tools to drive nature tourism in the Indian Subcontinent towards a more sustainable future. We have also used the funds generated by our 180 travel company members, of which Cox & Kings is a notable player, to undertake a host of projects. These include park guide and driver training, community environmental projects, wildlife and vulture recovery programmes, sustainable tourism workshops, and the soon-to-be-published Good Wildlife Travel Guide.

The TOFTigers’ appropriately named PUGmark – an eco-rating kitemark for accommodation providers – helps us to identify and support the most sustainably run lodges and resorts operating close to the borders of parks. We hope it will soon be recognised as India’s first certification programme by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

Our most recent success is a sponsorship scheme to support a Village Wildlife Guardian programme. A trained team of recruited villagers from the eastern side of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve – tractor drivers, chilli growers, wheat farmers – who live in bordering communities affected by the movement and grazing of wild animals, are now earning a small retainer for acting as the park’s eyes and ears when carnivores or their prey enter their farmlands and villages. This second ring of protection is proving most useful in stopping incidents of poaching, grazing and wood extraction, helping ensure that the magnificent tiger population is finally worth more alive than dead.

TOFTigers is celebrating its 10th anniversary on 21 May with a fascinating evening of talks by renowned experts at the Royal Geographical Society in London, entitled Is There a Future for Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos in the Wild? Tickets cost £15; to see more please click here >

Cox & Kings has 5 pairs of tickets to give away. To see the competition, please click here >

For further information about TOFTigers, please call 01963 824514, or email or visit their website >

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