Vijay Pinjarkar 
Nagpur: Conservationists, tourists and other stakeholders are upbeat and have high hopes from megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who has consented to be the ambassador for tiger conservation and promote tiger tourism in Maharashtra.

Bachchan had won hearts in 2010 when he came to MP Pench for the 'Save Tiger' campaign and generated nearly Rs4 crore, which is equal to the state grant for tiger reserves in the state.

"We welcome the move. Amitabh will be the face, but only if he highlights threats to tigers like poaching, use of products made of tiger body parts, development versus protecting corridors etc will such a campaign be effective. Being in the wildlife education field for decades, we are ready to give a suitable plan," said conservationist and Satpuda Foundation chief Kishor Rithe.

"Being an idol of the masses, Big B's appeal will certainly matter. He will bring in huge money through tourism. However, his role should not be confined to flashy advertisements, but government should urge the superstar to address threats to tigers with focus on corridors," said wildlife expert Prafulla Bhamburkar.

With Amitabh as ambassador, Gujarat tourism has grown by leaps and bounds and the Maharashtra government wants to boost tourism here on the lines of MP and Gujarat.

"The charismatic actor is well sensitized on tigers due to the two national campaigns in Pench and Ranthambore. But how you market it is important. Amitabh carries immense appeal and should reach the masses to get results," feels Nitin Desai, Central India adviser for Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

President of Vidarbha Economic Development Council (VED) Devendra Parekh expects tiger-rich Vidarbha to reap maximum benefit from Amitabh. "There's no doubt that Big B will pull foreign tourists, which will benefit stakeholders and thus indirectly help save tigers. It will be a stepping stone for Vidarbha as the region has 90% of the state's tiger population," said Parekh.

Chandrapur honorary wildlife warden Bandu Dhotre was overjoyed to hear the news. He says Bachchan's popular image will motivate people to save tigers. "His words will matter more than a politician's," Dhotre said.

Veteran conservationist Gopal Thosar too said the megastar is popular and his appeal to conserve tigers, if taken in the right spirit, will matter more.

On the contrary, Amol Khante of CAC-All Rounder, which promotes adventure tourism, felt Amitabh will help boost tiger tourism but not conservation. "We basically need motivation in ground staff and people living on the forest fringes to save tigers. The state is trying to compete with Gujarat and MP but it first needs to put its house in order. Does it have infrastructure to serve the influx of tourists after Amitabh's advertisement campaign,' asked Khante.

Sanjay Dhote, a teacher with a school near Pench, echoed the same feelings. "It will boost tourism but not tiger conservation at ground level," he said.

Wildlife enthusiasts like Rohit Sangar feel face value and ground value are two different issues. "Tourism is already bringing money. Big B should address threats like highways, power projects, poaching and projects threatening to destroy tiger habitats," he said.

Young naturalist Vineet Arora too agrees with Sangar. "Saving tiger habitat should be the biggest message from Big B rather than promoting ecotourism on which the government is harping," he said.
Honorary wildlife warden Roheet Karu too is hopeful that Amitabh will visit the field to motivate the staff and reach the masses to understand the ground realities. "Only then will the purpose be solved, otherwise such experiments have been carried out elsewhere too," he added.
"Today, most villages surrounding parks and forests in Vidarbha are engaged in poaching herbivores for meat. This is destroying prey base of tigers, turning them into cattle lifters and causing severe man-animal conflict. How far will Amitabh be able to address these issues is significant," he said.

A cautious Dilip Gode, who works with tribal communities, says though it is a welcome move, both, the government and Big B himself, should spell out what exactly is going to be done. "If a hero deters villains (poachers) from killing tigers, then nothing like it. But how he reaches out to the masses will be important," said Gode.

However, wildlife buffs like Sanatan Shende and Himanshu Bagde feel that Amitabh will certainly increase footfalls to Vidarbha, and conservation of tigers is becoming difficult owing to development pressures wherein forest land is being diverted for projects. "On one hand government is talking of tiger conservation, on the other it is fragmenting its habitat," Bagde said.

Gadchiroli honorary wildlife warden MS Chouhan said Amitabh's appeal will change the face of tiger tourism but protection and conservation are not possible without the help of locals. Big B will have to convince locals why tigers are important, by appealing to them.

However, rejecting all contrary views, forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said Amitabh is an icon and will surely create awareness about tigers. "I'm hopeful that 'save tigers' will become a mass movement in the state," he added.

Times View:
The signing up of Amitabh Bachchan as ambassador for Maharashtra's tigers will undoubtedly give the endangered animals a high profile. One inevitable, and intended, result will be a spurt in tiger tourism in state. It is doubtful if Maharashtra is ready for a large scale influx of tourists. The facilities even at best-known Tadoba are sparse while those at other places like Pench and Bor are subpar. At places like Umred and Tipeshwar they are either non-existent or rudimentary. These shortcomings need to be addressed 

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