Collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) has been promoted in India as a strategy to aid wildlife conservation whilst simultaneously alleviating poverty, and recent legislation now gives communities living within protected areas the legal right to collect NTFPs. However, research on the financial rewards from NTFP collection and its contribution to sustainable development is equivocal. In a case study in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, India, we examined whether NTFP collection can solve livelihood problems by analysing revenues obtained from various NTFP species, estimating the economic returns to collectors from various social backgrounds, and exploring the attitudes of collectors towards their profession. We found that black damar resin from the tree Canarium strictum (61.3%) and mace from Myristica spp. (35.5%) were the most commonly collected NTFPs, and the most valuable NTFPs were honey from Apis cerana indica (USD 4.12 kg-1), cardamom Elettaria cardamomum (USD 3.67 kg-1) and Myristica spp. (USD 2.77 kg-1). Mean daily revenue from NTFP collection was USD 3.15 ± SD 4.19 day-1, and the lowest daily revenues were earned by part-time collectors with low socio-economic status such as migrants, forest-dwellers or those without access to agricultural land. Most collectors (82%) did not wish to continue harvesting NTFPs if alternative livelihoods from agriculture could be provided, and none wanted their children to be NTFP collectors. Our findings suggest that, with respect to social justice, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability, the role of NTFP collection in sustainable development is questionable.