Tiger tax in India

Marketplace Staff Jun 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Indian government announced new ways to save that country’s endangered tigers this week. It’ll let the army shoot poachers on sight. Thankfully, that’s not the whole plan. They’ll increase conservation funds, with a whopping tiger tax on tourist hotels and parks. Suzanne Marmion traveled to India’s best-known tiger preserve south of Delhi.

SUZANNE MARMION: It’s just after dawn in Ranthambhore National Park. But the birds perched in the trees aren’t singing. They’re sending out urgent warnings.

Nearby, stalking through the undergrowth, a 400-pound tiger.

The animal’s yellow eyes blaze over a bloody muzzle. It stands guard over breakfast — a deer, freshly killed.

Six years ago, former President Bill Clinton visited Ranthambhore. All the papers here reported that he’d caught a glimpse of a large male tiger named Bumbooram. It was famous for letting people come close. Since then, Bumbooram has been poached.

In fact, more than half the park’s tigers have been killed over the past three years. Another reserve about 90 miles away called Sariska recently lost all its tigers. When that happened, the government convened a tiger task force. It was headed by environmentalist Sunita Narain.

SUNITA NARAIN: The conservationists who so strongly believe in the tiger must realize that all their efforts are failing.

Narain says the poached animals are taken mainly for use in Chinese medicines. She says it’s time for a new approach to the problem that focuses less on tigers, and more on villagers.

Just outside Ranthambhore National Park, several village men sit on overturned buckets, relaxing and drinking tea. Across the street a 10-foot concrete wall keeps the men out of the park and the forests where they used to collect wood and graze their animals. That was before the government declared tigers a protected species, before dozens of luxury hotels were built to accommodate the tourists who come to see the animals.

[Voice of angry villager.]

This man is frustrated that he can’t get a job at the hotels. He says he doesn’t have the skills or education. He’s angry at the tourist industry, and at the tiger. He says if poachers want to keep coming to kill the tigers, that’s fine by him. Then, the villagers could go back to grazing their animals in the park.

NARAIN: The anger against the tiger is growing along every one of our tiger reserves.

Narain says it’s not just that villagers tolerate the poachers. They sometimes cooperate with them. Some even engage in the trade themselves.

NARAIN: There are people who are feeling extremely angry, marginalized, frustrated at the fact that since the tiger has been protected, they have lost and not gained.

The people who have gained, according to Narain, are those who run the tourism industry at the parks. Together, the hotels in Ranthambhore make about $5 million a year. Narain says local resentment would subside if some of this money were redirected to the villages so they could benefit too.

So she and her task force have also proposed adding a 30 percent tax on top of what hotels already pay. Hotel owners say that would take away roughly half their profits.

GS RATHORE: I don’t know what business sense that is.

Hotel investor GS Rathore says his family’s business at Ranthambhore would be devastated by such a tax hike.

GS RATHORE: If that’s the way the government sees it, if that’s the way the government puts policy, it will close.

Rathore says the problem is the government puts the existing tax money into its general fund. He says if the politicians really want to save tigers, they should invest instead in guns for park rangers. Right now, India’s rangers are often unarmed, the poachers are not.

India’s parliament remains mired in this debate over guns-for-guards versus taxes-for-villagers. The government has accepted the task force’s recommendations in principle, including the tiger tax, but it has taken no action.

While that gives some relief to hotel owners, the tourism industry faces another problem. In the last two seasons, with fewer tigers, there have been fewer tourists.

In Rajasthan, India, I’m Suzanne Marmion for Marketplace.

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