NEW DELHI // The Indian government is mulling over its own version of a popular Zen riddle: if a tiger roars in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?
Tiger tourism is a 10 billion-rupee (Dh665 million) industry. But in a bid to conserve and expand the country's slender population of tigers, India is considering guidelines that may ban tourism from the core areas of reserves.
The supreme court issued a temporary ban on such tourism in late July and it has given the government until September 27 to review its guidelines to protect the big cats.
Environmentalists are far from united over this course of action, with some suggesting that tourism could help to increase tiger numbers.
According to government estimates, there were about 4,000 tigers in the wild in India during the 1990s, but that number declined steeply to about 1,400 in 2006. In the past five years, however, thanks to renewed conservation efforts, that number has risen to more than 1,700.
For the Bhopal-based environmentalist Ajay Dubey, this is not enough. The supreme court's decision came in response to a petition filed by Mr Dubey who has been pursuing an outright ban in the core areas for nearly two years.
The core area of a reserve, defined as an animal's crucial habitat, is surrounded by a buffer zone, a strategy designed to balance the livelihoods of local communities with the need to protect wildlife.
Mr Dubey said he would be open to "controlled tourism, under rules and regulations" in the reserves' buffer zones.
He said he was not "against tourism or eco-tourism at all" but "right now, the industry is just interested in making money".
Part of Mr Dubey's argument hinges on a clause of India's wildlife protection act of 1972, which says that the core areas of reserves should be kept free of human activity. He insists that he is pushing only for the implementation of that clause.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority, a government body formed in 2005, administers 42 tiger reserves across India with the biggest reserves attracting nearly half a million tourists every year.
A 2005 report commissioned by the ministry of environment and forests said tourism in these reserves, if mismanaged, "can lead to further stress on the tiger's habitat".
The report's recommendations, however, only suggested managing tourism better and ploughing its revenues back into conservation efforts, and not banning it altogether.
Vishal Singh, the director of Travel Operators for Tigers, a lobby group, said there was no cause and effect relationship between heavy tourism and a decline in the tiger population.
One study, conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India and published this year, seems to back him up.
The study examined tiger densities in tourism and non-tourism zones in the Pench Tiger Reserve, which sprawls over 758 square kilometres in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Researchers found "no significant difference" between tiger densities in the two zones.
Mr Singh also cited statistics from six tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh suggesting that, even as tourism to these reserves grew between 2008 and last year, the number of tigers in the parks "either increased or remained stable".
Mr Singh said the problems with tiger conservation lay elsewhere, such as in the 30,000-odd vacancies in the government's forestry departments that had yet to be filled or in the lack of incentives for local communities to participate in conservation efforts.
In fact, Mr Singh advocates an expansion of tiger tourism as a solution to boost tiger numbers.
"Right now, out of a 600 sq km reserve, the government will allow tourism only in a sixth of the area," he said.
Expanding tourism in reserves will provide more employment to local residents and diminish the temptation to make a living through poaching instead, he added.
"The government simply hasn't harnessed the potential of tourism, as they've done in Africa," Mr Singh said.
The temporary ban has already begun to hurt tourism. Daleep Akoi, the owner of Jim's Jungle Retreat in Corbett National Park, said that his winter bookings from foreign tourists were "sparse".
Unlike several others in the industry, Mr Akoi readily admits that irresponsible tourism is a problem.
"But the solution is not to ban it entirely. Instead, they should be suspending the licences of hotels that are illegally built in tiger corridors," he said.
"So in a way, it's a good thing that some regulation is coming."