DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's go now to India. That country's Supreme Court has weighed in on the question of whether tigers and tourists can co-exist. The answer is no. The court has temporarily banned tourism in the core areas of the country's 41 tiger reserves. The controversial ruling is aimed at protecting the last of India's 1,700 tigers. NPR's Julie McCarthy went on her own search for some of India's spectacular cats.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The moon hangs fat and milky over Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park, part of a sprawling tiger reserve. Big game hunters trod these forests up until the late 1960s. Today, spotting one of India's big cats - a tiger or the more elusive leopard - inside the park is forbidden. We maneuver our van beside the outer wall. Headlights trained on the brick boundary, we draw a collective breath.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: See, there's a leopard.
MCCARTHY: Oh, my, straight ahead of us, under the moonlight, undisturbed even by the noise of trucks is this beautiful, male leopard. Now he's moving his head in our direction, but he's not about to jump anywhere.
BALENDU SINGH: No. It's not.
MCCARTHY: Guide Balendu Singh.
SINGH: He's perfectly comfortable sitting here while we have a vehicle sitting and - you know, we're about 40 yards away from him. And he's perfectly at ease. Plus it's a good perch for him to sit and observe a stray dog or something walking by.
SINGH: Dinner. That's right.
MCCARTHY: This forest once teemed with the leopard's cousin, the tiger. But this former hunting ground of the Maharajas has just 52 of the big cats today. The forests of the Ranthambore Park, southwest of Delhi, are dotted with the remnants of India's past glories. A mile inside, and still open to visitors, looms the thousand-year-old Ranthambore Fort.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)
MCCARTHY: Scavenging monkeys and families feeding them crowd the fort's ramparts and tombs. Below, broad valleys of deciduous forests and expanses of water make up the tiger reserve. Touring the fort, field biologist Dharmendra Khandal says 20 percent of the land inhabited by Indian tigers has been lost in the last six years to increasing demands for land by an ever-growing population.
And most of that is agriculture?
DHARMENDRA KHANDAL: Most of that is agriculture, and some of them are under mining.
KHANDAL: Big mining people, big mining industries.
AJAY DUBEY: In the last 12 years, I've been actively working for environmental issues and good governance.
MCCARTHY: That's Ajay Dubey, the Supreme Court petitioner behind the ban on tourists entering core areas of tiger reserves. The 37-year-old activist from Bhopal who waged successful campaigns against India's powerful mining interests is now rattling the cage of tiger tourism and some of the more prominent conservationists. Dubey says mindless tourism has adversely affected the big cat, and that human activity should be restricted to buffer areas of tiger habitats to stop the decline of the tigers.
DUBEY: Eighteen hundred tigers in 1972. Right? Now we are having only 1,700. Only 1,700 tigers, so we have to be more careful and sincere for the conservation of the tiger.
MCCARTHY: Some wildlife experts agree that tourists damage the natural habitat. Others say they act as watchdogs against poachers and lax forestry officials. Balendu Singh is a local hotelier and wildlife enthusiast opposed to the tourism ban. He says entry into Ranthambore was already strictly regulated, with a total of 520 guests allowed in for a limited time.
SINGH: We have three hours in the morning and three hours an afternoon, a total of six hours in a day.
MCCARTHY: Moreover, Singh says a permanent ban would be disastrous for the local economy. The court's decision on whether to extend its ban will affect thousands of Indians, including drivers, cooks, guides and luggage bearers at train stations, all whose livelihoods depend on tourism, tourism that businessmen Balendu Singh says only raises the local standard of living.
SINGH: Which will include better education, better life, better health care. So the entire area is elevated and becomes better. You get more awareness. Awareness and education lead to better conservation, and nobody can deny that.
MCCARTHY: Many conservationists agree that poachers are a bigger danger to tigers than tourists. Like the ivory of elephants, the bones and body parts of tigers are poached for enormous sums. But the regulations governing tourism are the controversy at the moment. India's Wildlife Protection Act states that core areas of tiger reserves are inviolate. The Supreme Court is expected to shed light on what that means when it hears oral arguments on the tourism ban tomorrow. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.