NEW DELHI -- India's Supreme Court on Tuesday lifted its controversial ban on tourism in the tiger-breeding areas of 41 forest parks, ruling that visitors may enter the outer 20 percent of the formerly forbidden areas but also ordering state governments to present plans within six months for complying with national guidelines on protecting the tiger population.


The court imposed the interim ban in July, saying that many Indian states were not following guidelines about phasing out tourism in the inner areas of tiger parks. The ban was  opposed both by wildlife conservationists and tour operators.

Tourists don’t kill tigers, poachers do, appeared to be the refrain of several wildlife experts, government officials and tour operators as they opposed the ban in testimony before the court in the past three months.

“This is a big relief for us in the tourism industry because India is one of the few countries where you have a good chance of seeing the tiger in the wild,” said Subhash Goyal, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators in New Delhi. “Since the ban, we have been witnessing a significant fall in bookings. Tourists are not enemies of tigers. It is in the tourism industry’s interest to protect the tiger.”

Goyal said that violations in one or two parks had led to the court’s ban across India.

Prominent wildlife conservationists also opposed the tourism ban. Keeping tourists away, they argued, would only mean leaving the forests as a free playground for poachers.

Roughly half of the world’s wild tigers live in India. A century ago, there were about 30,000 wild tigers in India; by 1964, the number had shrunk to 4,000. In recent decades, as poaching increased, tiger numbers dipped sharply. During the last cat count in 2011, the number of tigers in the wild was estimated to be around 1,700.

The country’s "Incredible India" tourism brochures and Web sites feature the wild cat prominently, and wildlife tourism employs tens of thousands of people in various parks. India attracted more than 6 million international tourists last year, registering a growth of almost nine percent over the previous year, according to the government. About 15 percent of the revenue generated by those foreign tourists comes from wildlife tourism, officials said.

Already this year, 24 tigers were killed by human hunters in India, and another 26 died of disease, old age or other non-poaching related causes, according to the government. Tiger body parts were seized in 12 incidents, compared to nine for the whole of last year. Experts who track trafficking routes say that most tiger parts find their way into the traditional medicine market in China.