Responsible wildlife vacations in India


Paul Goldstein, tiger safari expert at Exodus, our leading supplier of tiger and wildlife watching vacations in India: “The tiger is an animal that is very recognisable. Whether it is a rugby club, a golfer, a breakfast cereal or a beer it has worldwide branding. It is an animal we have all known about since childhood, so we are intuitively familiar with it. And with those white circles behind the ears and those extraordinary eyes, it has the most deeply endearing face. And also, anyone who is a signed up member of the human race is aware that they are being desperately persecuted.”
Wildlife vacations in India have had a rapid turnaround really in just a couple of generations. Conservation only started properly in the 1970s when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put a stop to the massacre not only of tigers but other creatures around the country. Poaching does still happen, however, and that is because there is still a pretty price on the head of tigers, for example, fuelled by the ridiculous market of Chinese medicine. Climate change and loss of habitat also plays a role, but thanks to many conservationist organisations, local communities are starting to realise that these wondrous creatures are worth more alive than dead, if wildlife tourism is carefully and sensitively managed.

Wildlife & environment


Tigers are not magic

Sadly, it is the myth and highly monetised notion that tiger body parts are cure alls in Traditional Chinese Medicine that has put such a high price on the life of a tiger, even though killing one is illegal. And, given how few tigers there are left in the wild, immoral. There are some issues we won’t sugar coat at Responsible Travel, and this is one of them. There is no scientific proof that tigers’ eyes, bone, brain or indeed penises can cure epilepsy, rheumatism, acne or be an aphrodisiac, respectively. Although ‘respect’ is far from the remit of this vile industry. Of course there is little that tourists can do about this, but you can support organisations that work tirelessly to put a stop to it. And you can also support local communities that are now gaining an income from wildlife tourism to show them that tigers turn us on in so many other ways. And we will pay royally for that pleasure too. Read our Tiger Safaris Travel guide for more gruesome details.

What you can do
Support lobbying charities such as WWF, Born Free and WildAid which work on the ground and at government level to prevent poaching and destruction of wildlife habitats. 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. Another great website is Tiger Nation a website created in India, where you can upload your photos or video footage, share them on social media, but also have the details added to scientific databases for vital research purposes.

Being taken for a ride

A common way to see wildlife in India is on the back of an elephant. And who wouldn’t be tempted to experience such an exciting thing? Well, once you understand some of the cruelty that elephants undergo, then you might think again. There are several problems associated with using elephants for tiger safaris, also known as ‘tiger shows’. Firstly, the majority of elephants used for rides are captured in the wild as babies. Today, the wild capture of elephants presents one of the biggest threats to remaining populations of endangered Asian elephants, particularly as capturing a baby often requires the mother and other adult elephants to be killed. Secondly, you are generally not guided by a nature expert, but by a mahout or elephant trainer whose only focus is bellowing out instructions to the elephant. And thirdly, elephants being used for this purpose will almost certainly have been mistreated, shackled and trained with implements such as bullhooks in order to train them – known as “crushing the spirit.”

However, we do recognise that within some national parks, such as Periyar, Satpura and Tadoba , tiger shows are a fundamental funding arm for wildlife conservation, and it would create more harm than good to completely boycott them right now. As threatened as elephants are, the tigers and rhinos are in a far more critical position. Tourism in these parks has been key to the rise in tiger numbers, as well as conserving the highly endangered rhinos that also inhabit some of India’s national parks, and are hunted for their horns. But there is never an excuse to ride elephants outside of these protected areas – and ideally, in the future, this practice will no longer need to exist at all.

What you can do:
Read more about the pros and cons of riding elephants in our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide, and please do not support the temples which have elephants chained up as a way of raising money, nor ones that perform for tourists either. Same goes for elephants that are painted and decorated for festivals, particularly popular in Jaipur.

Sophie Hartman, owner of our supplier Chinkara Journeys, specialising in central India: “I think that name ‘tiger watching’ should be banned. Don’t go with tigers as your sole focus, there is so much to see in India’s national parks and spending the whole of your safari charging around the park on a hunt for a tiger is such a wasted opportunity. Ask your guide and driver to stop for ten minutes by a lake or stream, listen to the sounds of the jungle, watch the birds, enjoy the beauty of the light coming through the forest. SO much more fun than just thumping along in a jeep.”

People & culture

Castes, conservation & communities

Wildlife guiding in India

One of the issues of wildlife vacations in India is that there is still no national wildlife guiding association and national park rules vary per state. Very often guides are hired from the local community which, in theory, is a good thing. However, in India, if guides are hired from within certain tribal communities, they are considered ‘untouchables’ within the caste system, something that is still carries weight particularly within the older generation of Indians, many of whom are vacationing at home and on safari. The relationship between tourist and guide can, therefore, come across as more like servant and master, and does not always promulgate a positive wildlife watching environment. With 95 percent of tourists being from India, this can create a feeling of discomfort for international visitors.
Julian Matthews , founder and chair of Travel Operators For Tigers and Tiger Nation: “Some states train their guides, others don’t, some are naturalists, others aren’t. Sometimes it is a case of a local tribesman turning up at the gate, putting on a uniform, if you are lucky, and being told they are guides. And in fact, they are more like policemen who are to manage tourists, than guides. Some are exceptionally good, but this is the minority sadly. In addition, the guides are very aware of their position within the caste system and just do what they are told by the tourists. And these tourists are also not aware of responsible tourism at all, as they are still catching up with the issues. This is the undercurrent of the guiding fraternity here, which makes the notion of training the majority of these guides very tricky.”

Wildlife or people?

There is often controversy around protecting wildlife habitats, and India is no exception. In 2015, the National Tiger Conservation Authority announced the opening of three new tiger reserves, meaning that the country will soon have 50. The problem is that local people are displaced in these reserve areas and moved into ‘buffer zones’. But even in these buffer zones, their activities are restricted. Yes, these people may be offered employment in the national parks and reserves, but much of this work is seasonal so poaching is still an attractive way to make a living for many. The reason they poach is, predominantly, to sell the tiger body parts to China for the traditional medicine market. Which is why supporting all local initiatives within these areas, not just the parks or reserves, is vital. Stay at homestays, eat locally, use porters as well as local guides and buy local handicrafts.

For more details on India’s complex journey from obliteration to conservation of wildlife, treat yourself to local environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan’s books: India's Wildlife History and The Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife.

To quote from this fine expert: “Pessimism, though tempting, is misleading. The past does give ground for hope. Few imagined the rhino in Assam or the lions of Gir forest would survive the twentieth century. Custom and faith provide a protective shield for hundreds of gazelles and antelopes around Bishnoi villages in northwestern India... The wildlife of the country is more than an aesthetic asset, a resource to be tapped by science or a cultural heritage. Its existence is a sign of the efficacy of natural cycles of renewal, of the close links between the forests, soils and waters that make the land habitable and livable.”

Responsible travel & India wildlife vacations

Tips for responsible wildlife watching

  • As well as the issues discussed above with regards to riding elephants, elephant polo, popular in Rajasthan, isn’t top of our responsible tourism wishlist either. The animals are trained at a young age with methods that are far from respectful of animal welfare.
  • Be culturally sensitive when it comes to dress. In India, women generally are expected to cover their legs and shoulders, and low cut tops are not the done thing.
  • Always listen to your guide and remember that these are wild animals in their habitats. They rule the roost here. Do not feed, touch, tease or provoke them. Don’t go to close to them, and do not use flash photography.
  • Do not support the use of animals as photographic props i.e. do not have your photograph taken with an animal used specifically for this purpose (lion and tiger cubs, snakes and exotic birds). Many of these animals are drugged when photographed and then killed once they become too large to handle.
  • If you see any animals being mistreated, please report it at the Born Free help desk online here or call their new Travelers' Alert Hotline on (+44) 845 003 5960, night or day. Provide as much detail as possible and your report could make a real difference to an animal in need. Video footage is particularly useful.

  • Although not a wild animal, it is worth noting that in Rajasthan camels are sometimes used in processions for performance purposes and, similar to elephants, this use of animals for tourists’ entertainment is totally irresponsible. The same goes for camel races, such as at the annual Pushkar Fair where they put as many as ten people on top of one camel to see which camel can carry the most people. There are even camel beauty contents, which involve piercing the camel and shaving or dying their fur into intricate designs.
  • Wildlife safaris can be guilty of completely over doing the bottled water thing, so inquire about getting large plastic bottles to refill with, rather than lots of 50cl bottles, some of which end up in the protected landscapes.
  • Jeeps should never go over 20kph in national parks, so ensure that your driver keeps to that. Noise levels should also be kept to a minimum. If you are disgruntled about any of these issues, posting your thoughts on social media usually has an impact, and our own vacation reviews have a section for travelers to give their thoughts on how operators have benefitted the environment (or not). We follow up on irresponsible issues which have been reported. You can also report incidents through TOFTigers, with photo or video proof if possible.
  • If you are on a wildlife vacation in Gujarat, please be aware that alcohol is illegal in this state. Exceptions are made for foreign visitors, but you will need to check with your tour operator. Drinking in public is a definite no no though
Sophie Hartman, owner of our supplier Chinkara Journeys, specialising in central India: “I’ve really struggled with people whom I’ve specially asked to dress modestly (we operate in a very under-visited part of India where people aren’t used to seeing white people, let alone bare white legs and arms) who’ve then emerged in shorts and a strappy top and asked the guest house owner if they’re ok as they are. Hotel owners are far too polite to say anything, and although everyone is lovely in the part of India in which we work, the local people are embarrassed and that infuriates me.”
Photo credits: [Chinese medicine: USFWS Mountain-Prairie] [Being taken for a ride: Honza Soukup] [Local life: shankar s.] [Overcrowded: Sankara Subramanian]
Written by Catherine Mack
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