In Ranthambhore, one of India's premier tiger reserves in the heart of Rajasthan, the sense of gloom this week has been almost palpable. Fateh Singh Rathore looks despondent when you ask him how many tigers are left in the park. "In 2004, the official count of tigers in Ranthambhore was 47, last year was 26. At least 18 tigers went 'missing'."
Fateh Singh, one of India's most revered "tiger wallahs", served for years as the director of Ranthambhore. Now retired from official duties, he heads a local non-governmental organisation called Tiger Watch.
In his office on the outskirts of the park, he puts a disc in the computer and 18 tiger "mugshots" appear on the screen. Beneath each picture is a stark caption, indicating the method of death. "Shot by poachers", it says under one, "poisoned" and "snared" under others.
"It gets worse" he continues. "In March last year, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, set up a tiger task force in response to the epidemic of poaching which was wiping out our tigers. In May he flew into Ranthambhore with his helicopters. And what has happened since?" Singh pauses dramatically before pulling up another image. "Since the Prime Minister's visit, we have lost another seven. There could be fewer than 20 tigers left in Ranthambhore today."
The only reason the police belatedly took action against the poachers, apparently, is because Fateh Singh and his people presented them with the evidence. "We forced the police to act," Singh says. "In four or five months we caught 35 people. One man confessed he had killed more than 30 tigers in two years.
Charges were finally brought and convictions obtained. A number of poachers, including the ringleaders, are now in custody. But won't others step into their shoes as long as there is a demand for tiger skins?
At this point, and perhaps for the first time that day, Fateh Singh's mood seems to lighten. The seizure of the poachers' mobile phone records had indicated a Tibetan connection. Demand for tiger skins by newly-rich consumers in Tibet seemed to be one of the factors leading to the recent increase in tiger-killing. Clicking the mouse again, he showed me pictures of young Tibetans parading in their traditional gowns or chubas lined with tiger skins, as well as leopard, otter and fox fur.
"That young man's father," Fateh Singh pointed to one of the pictures, "probably gave him the tiger-skin chuba as a graduation present. Close down that market and we will strike a major blow against the poachers."
Indian NGOs campaigning to save the tiger have enlisted the help of the Dalai Lama himself. As thousands of Tibetans streamed into India for the Kalachakra, one of the most important festivals of the Tibetan Buddhist calendar, the Dalai Lama made a personal appeal to his followers. Ashok Kumar, a founder and director of the Wildlife Trust of India, described the event. "It was a tremendously moving occasion. The Dalai Lama was completely passionate. He said he remembered the time when wildlife abounded on the whole Tibetan plateau and that he was ashamed of the recent photographs showing Tibetans wearing robes made out of tiger skins. Wearing animal skins and furs was, he said, against Buddhism."
The Dalai Lama made his comments in Delhi on 6 April last year. Since then reports, including film footage, have been coming in of piles of tiger and other skins being burned in Tibet. There has apparently been an impact on the price as well, with a drop in the "normal" price of a skin (around $60,000 or £34,000).
Belinda Wright, founder and director of the Wildlife Society of India, is equally convinced the Dalai Lama's intervention has been crucial. However, even if the market for skins disappeared, the market for tiger bones could be more important than ever. On average, a tiger's skeleton weighs around 10-12 kilos. With a kilo of tiger bone fetching up to $2,000 on the black market for use in traditional medicine, the incentive to poach was even greater. "And it's not just the Chinese who live in China who are the source of this demand," Wright told me. "There is increasing evidence that overseas Chinese, including those living in Britain, are buying products containing tiger-bone in their search for alternative medicine. It won't say so on the label, but that is the reality."
Last month Willem Wijnsteckers, head of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) wrote to the Indian Prime Minister to express concern about the slowness with which India seemed to be implementing anti-poaching measures and in clamping down on the illegal trade.
However P K Sen, a former director of Project Tiger (the government of Indira Gandhi's response to the first "tiger crisis" in the early 1970s), feels such appeals are largely ineffective. "The real problem," he explained, "is that the government is in denial. When the total disappearance of tigers from Sariska National Park in Rajasthan was first reported last year, the government's response was to say, 'the tigers have gone on holiday in Bhutan!'" He is strongly sceptical of official census figures, arguing that few national park officials wish to be recorded as having presided over a fall, rather than a rise, in the number of tigers in their area. P K Sen today works for WWF-India. His deputy there, Ranjit Talwar, a retired brigadier, believes when the current tiger census is completed later this year, even the official figures will show that India's tiger population could have fallen to as low as 1,200.
Maneka Gandhi, the widow of Sanjay Gandhi, who is an MP and former environment minister, said the true figure could be even lower. "If there are 500 tigers left in India, I'd be surprised. They are even skinning the tigers in Indian zoos." She believes the Indian government should be "flexing its diplomatic muscle to force China to clamp down ruthlessly on the Tibetan market".
So how is the government to be persuaded to move out of denial mode into action mode? In August last year, the tiger task force established by the Indian Prime Minister reported on the state of the country's existing tiger population and ways in which it could be nurtured and increased. Its recommendations included the setting up of a wildlife crime bureau, strengthening the criminal provisions of wildlife protection legislation, and proposals to help local people enjoy more of the benefits that tiger tourism can bring.
So far, however, the government has shown little sign of giving the report the attention it deserves. Dr Ullas Karanth, based in Bangalore and technical director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's tiger programme, believes that the problem resides to a large extent in the mindset of those at the top.
"Between 1970 and 1990, there was a determined effort by the Indian government to save the tiger. But over time the protective mission has crumbled. The machinery for protection has gradually disintegrated as well as the political commitment both at the federal and state level. The priority of successive prime ministers has been good economic management, the dash for growth. Okay, someone may nag them at a cocktail party and they'll do something. But it's gesture politics. There is a lack of commitment."
Dr Karanth takes the poaching issues very seriously. But even more important, from his point of view, is the disappearance of the tiger's prey-base, through hunting or through the encroachment of human populations. The tiger task force had made some important recommendations about reducing human-tiger conflict but it would take major political will and resources to implement them. "You have to work at every level, not just with central government but at state and local level, in the courts, in the villages."
Dr Karanth is critical of the failure to counter the impression that the national parks and tiger reserves are "gardens for rich people" to play in. "Even the largest so-called 'ecotourist' operators have not put an effort into ensuring that the benefits reach the local people."
Shekar Dattatri, one of India's leading wildlife film-makers based in Chenai (Madras), shares this point of view. "Unfortunately, almost all the money goes to enrich businessmen who live elsewhere. Almost no money goes either to the parks or to the people who protect the parks. The tourist industry in India will milk the parks to the very last tiger and then it will shift its attention elsewhere."
If it is true that the wrong kind of tourism can harm rather than help the tiger, not least by contributing to local antagonisms and resentment, there are now determined efforts under way to improve this state of affairs.
Abhishek Behl, a young tourism and conservation graduate from Kent University, serves as the Indian director of Travel Operators for Tigers (Toft) a UK-based campaign currently grouping 22 tour operators which aims to help India establish a more responsible and sustainable future for wildlife tourism. The idea is to use travel operators' purchasing power to advocate better tourism practices and help local communities.
Balendu Singh, a hotel owner in Rathambhore and the local Toft representative, said he believed the future lay in "responsible tourism" which ensured that local people and local produce were used to the maximum extent possible and that adverse impacts on the environment were kept to a minimum.
In Madhya Pradesh's Bandhavgarh National Park and tiger reserve, I spent four days with Dhruv Singh, a remarkable young man who has built an ashram-like retreat deep in the jungle where guests have the opportunity to contribute materially to the nearby village's prosperity and way of life. "We have to give something back to the villagers," he said. "I don't yet know what we will charge the guests who come here but it will be nothing like the prices at the top-end hotels. Every guest will have a chance to work, or contribute to, the local village."
Of course, responsible tourism, even if it can be made to work, can never be more than part of the solution. As Dr Ullas Karanth pointed out to me, the pressure on tiger habitat remains. When I first came to India in 1961, the human population was around 400 million. Today it is 1,200 million. On previous visits, I have been struck by the emphasis placed by the government on birth control and family planning. In the economic boom, with its double-digit growth-rates, population policy seems to be taking a back seat.
That makes it all the more important for the authorities - local and national - to achieve a successful coexistence between human beings and tigers. Of course, such measures, particularly where relocation of human populations is involved, may be expensive and unpopular. As ever, the vital ingredient seems to be political will.
India's tiger population recovered from catastrophe in 1972 when the government set up Project Tiger. It survived a second crisis in the early 1990s, largely caused by the growing international demand for tiger skins and bones. Today, the country is in the throes of a third crisis, where renewed poaching pressures have been exacerbated by the destruction of habitat. Yes, there are still tigers around and, yes, they can still be seen. During my eight days in Ranthambhore and Bandhavgargh, I was lucky enough to see eight tigers altogether, some more than once.
But how long will this state of affairs last? It would be good to come back to India, say, 10 years from now and to be able to report that the Indian tiger, miraculously, has once again bounced back from the brink.Reuse content