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Can tigers and tourists coexist? The debate is rumbling through India, where the Supreme Court has temporarily banned tourism in core areas of the country's 41 tiger reserves. The unexpected and controversial ruling is aimed at protecting the last of India's 1,700 tigers.

Up until the late 1960s, big game hunters trod the forests of Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park, part of a sprawling tiger reserve southwest of Delhi. Under the court's recent ban, spotting one of India's big cats — a tiger or the more elusive leopard — inside the park is forbidden.

But next to the outer wall one night, with the headlights of our van trained on the brick boundary, a beautiful male leopard appeared straight ahead of us in the light of the moon. He sat motionless, his long tail draped over the 5-foot wall. Undistributed by the noise of trucks, the cat finally moved his huge head in our direction, but he wasn't about to jump anywhere.

"He's perfectly comfortable sitting here while we have a vehicle sitting about 40 yards away from him," said guide Balendu Singh, "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."

"Dinner?" I asked.

"Dinner, that's right," Singh said.

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.

Less Tiger Habitat, More Humans

The forests of Ranthambore are dotted with the remnants of India's past glories. A mile inside, and still open to visitors, looms the thousand-year-old Ranthambhore Fort.

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 past six years to increasing demands for land by an ever-growing population, mostly tied to the agriculture and mining industries. "It's a very big challenge by human population towards the tiger," he says.

Ajay Dubey, the Supreme Court petitioner behind the ban on tourists entering core areas of tiger reserves, says he has been working on "environmental issues and good governance" for the past 12 years.

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.

"Eighteen-hundred tigers in 1972, right? Now we are having only 1,700 tigers — only 1,700 tigers. We have to be more careful and sincere for the conservation of the tiger," Dubey says.

Livelihoods Dependent On Tourism

Some wildlife experts agree that tourists damage the natural habitat. Others say they act as watchdogs against poachers and lax forestry officials.

Singh, our guide at the park boundary and a local hotelier and wildlife enthusiast, is opposed to the tourism ban. He says entry into Ranthambhore is already strictly regulated, with a total of 520 guests allowed in for a limited time.

"We have three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon — a total of six hours in a day," he says. And Singh says tourists have access to just a quarter of the park.

More importantly, he 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. Their livelihoods depend on tourism, which Singh says only raises the local standard of living.

"Better education, better life, better health care — so the entire area is elevated and becomes better," Singh says. "You get more awareness; awareness and education lead to better conservation. And nobody can deny that."

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.

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