Tiger sightings for tourists in Tala zone of the renowned Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve have gone down since the commencement of the tourism season this year.
The Tala zone of the park is designated as 'premium' where tourists have to spend double the entry fee on grounds of higher chances of sighting of the striped cat.
Madhya Pradesh forest department claims that Tala has one of the highest densities of tiger in the country, something not corroborated by sightings.
Hoteliers and tour operators are worried that drop in sightings will force tourists to move to neighbouring Maharashtra, where the Tadoba Tiger Reserve has of late emerged the most promising place for tiger sighting.
Sources at Bandhavgarh said that as against the forest department's claim of 35 tigers in the 100 sq km Tala zone, only four tigers are being seen — the Mirchahani female, the Bandehi cub (male), the Bandehi cub (female) and the Rajbehera female. "Guides have to report tiger sighting in the register kept at the gate. The register has fewer entries compared to the summer months or the same time last year," said a guide on condition of anonymity.
Locals blame the foot patrols by daily wage labourers started by the park management as a cause for disturbance for the tigers and this, they say, has resulted in less tiger sightings. Guides also speak of a drop in sighting of herbivores — a sign that all is not well with the park.
There has also been an increase in number of attacks on cattle in villages around the park which could mean a drop in natural prey base of the tiger.
It is only a matter of time before tourists start shifting to other destinations in case tiger sightings go down, suggest tour operators. "The new rules for tourism are not tourist friendly, especially in Bandhavgarh. While the overall experience of the visit to a park is important, the importance of tiger sighting in the entire scheme of things for a tourist cannot be negated either," said Amit Sankhla, owner of Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge.
Tadoba in Maharashtra, which was not even in the scene about two years ago, has now emerged as a very popular tiger sighting destination, he said adding that it could attract tourists from other parks where tiger sightings are low.
Trips to the park are not cheap and not seeing the tigers adds to heartburns for tourists. Indian tourists have to pay Rs 2,400 for entry to the premium Tala zone, while entry fee to the other non-premium zones is Rs 1,200. Foreign tourists have to pay double the fee for Indians. Besides this, renting the vehicle costs more than Rs 2,000 while the guide charges Rs 300. Thus a trip to the Tala zone costs Indian tourists almost Rs 5,000, while foreign tourists have to spend more than Rs 7,500.
Field director, Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, CH Murlikrishna told HT, "It is true that tiger sightings have gone down in Tala zone of the park. However, tiger sightings have increased in the neighbouring Magadhi zone as tigers from Tala have shifted to Magadhi zone. About 25 tigers still remain in the Tala zone which is not open to tourists and are hence not seen by them."