Natural World Hero

Julian Matthews

founder of the charity TOFTigers, focusing on using India’s tourism industry as a better tool for conserving tigers and their habitats

Pioneering TIGER Conservationist - Julian Matthews

Born and brought up on a wildlife and cattle farm in Zimbabwe, Julian Matthews has spent 24 years of his career involved in the nature tourism and wildlife conservation arena, as an eco-entrepreneur, naturalist and passionate advocate in the use of sustainable tourism as a conservation tool, and as a pioneer in the responsible nature tourism industry.  

He founded and ran for 12 years an award winning nature and safari business called Discovery Initiatives which involved partnering and working alongside over 45 separate national and International wildlife agencies across the globe, including WWF UK, Orangutan Foundation, Jane Goodall Institute and others funding a host of projects in many of the world’s greatest wildernesses, from Mongolia to Namibia, China to the Pantanal. Over this time over £1 million for wildlife conservation was raised.

He founded a campaigning charity in 2005 in India, called TOFTigers to focus on using India’s growing nature tourism industry as a better tool for conserving tigers and wildlife, integrating communities and effecting greater habitat restoration efforts. Today over 220 of the world's best travel and safari companies support the project, and use their businesses to drive better practices and greater conservation support across India and Nepal.

Interview with Julian Matthews

Tell us more about the work that you do and how it helps support front-line conservation efforts.

My charity’s aim was to simply get India’s forest departments to take a handle on nature tourism, plan it better, allow visitors to get real insight into its extraordinary wildlife and wilderness and ensure that the money travellers paid to enjoy it went back to supporting wildlife protection and bordering communities. Oh how naive I was! Sadly nothing is that simple, and what I discovered was a system that was unwilling and unable to change, and in fact wanted to close down the entire nature tourism industry in 2012, rather than engage with it to effect more sustainable ways to undertake what is still one of the basic tenements of any park’s creation, an opportunity to educate, study, recreate and spiritually connect with nature.

What do you consider to be the greatest threats to the future of tigers in India?

Mankind is its greatest threat. Too many people with too little space left for natural processes to exist. Tigers will survive in small pockets across India, heavily managed, and with a poor prey basis. Poaching is often seen as its biggest threat - but the reality is that a lack of prey is probably a larger factor in its ultimate survival, killed often to feed a little reported bushmeat trade (also poaching!) together with large enough natural habitat to ensure sustained genetically diverse populations can continue to exist.

How can tourism help the protection and conservation of tigers in India?

Tourism is probably the only reason that tigers will survive in tiger range states in the long term. Its unique ability to ensure a sustained economic benefit from live wild tigers -  instead of dead ones - ensures benefits for park revenues and protection from visitor park fees, more taxes and revenue for state Governments, more jobs and opportunities for local communities and enjoyment and fulfillment for visitors, ensuring everyone can be happy to have wild tigers remaining in their forests. Today nature tourism is producing up to 4 times more revenue for parks than is given by governments to their protection, but also keeps more eyes and ears to the ground and in the field, ensure greater accountability from its managers, greater public support for its efforts and less chance that it can be open to mining, roads, poaching, tree felling and over grazing than landscapes that do not have visitors. One tigress in Ranthambore we calculated to have earned over £101 million in a decade in revenue to parks, government, businesses and local communities around the park.

However, much tourism in India is poor, badly planned, badly designed and badly managed, and much of the potential benefits are lost, so TOFTigers has been calling for a radical reappraisal of how it plans and operates wildlife tourism in the coming decade, using the many and wonderful examples that are already plain to see in small patches of India, but increasingly inside and outside parks across Africa, south and central America, where tourism is a critical tool in a Field Director’s toolbox.  

As a traveller today to India, your safari is critical – but the very best hope to ensure your travels are ‘tiger friendly’ is to use only PUG approved lodges – look for the PUG kitemark – because they have been given a thorough assessment of their operations and sustainability and you can rest assured that your travels are being beneficial to your destinations ongoing conservation efforts rather than detrimental to them.

What are the most encouraging conservation successes that you have seen during your career?

India has a history of conservation success stories, including the Indian one horned-rhino and the Gharial crocodile, both very close to extinction in the last century, and though not out of the woods, still remarkably successful.

The other is the many extraordinary wildlife conservancies, run with individual or collective passion and private finance across Africa and the Americas. Governments are not the sole guardians of wildlife and wilderness, but individuals and communities can be too, with vision and the right legal framework to allow investment in conservation and protection, and support from safari tourism. Sadly the Indian authorities do not yet understand this notion.

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

Yes – be locally active in your area – and think locally when in other exotic destinations too. Rage and petition for actions and support where you can, and become a friend of a wild place or wild animals that you love. That's powerful for us and them.

Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you wanted to work within conservation?

No. It was gradual but most of the people I liked and looked up to were lovers of the wild, be they rangers, guides, scientists or conservationists. I had no plans to be in conservation initially – but my life panned out that way, and I have always reacted to things that I do not like to see. That makes me act.

Who is your Natural World Hero and why?

My Uncle probably – Norman Travers - who was my earliest hero, and who had the largest breeding stock of black rhino in Africa at one point.

What is your dream natural world destination that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?

The Sudd in Southern Sudan.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

You are never an expert in the natural world. You're always learning – always a student, never a master.