India turns to spy technology to save tigers

With a single skin fetching £10,000, the species has been brought to the brink of extinction in the wild

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Even as the controversy rages over ID cards and Big Brother-style surveillance in Britain, an even more comprehensive system will go into operation this week in India. The local version has hidden cameras in the depths of the jungle and radio collars that will allow satellites to track every move of those wearing them.

But in India there have been no protests over civil liberties - indeed, the system has widespread support, because here the hope is that electronic surveillance can bring one of the world's most endangered species back from the brink of extinction. Tigers, not people, will be wearing the radio collars.

The whole set-up is part of a major new effort by India to protect its dwindling population of wild tigers from poachers. Under the scheme, every wild tiger in India will be issued its own photo-ID card - which will be kept by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) so it can identify the tigers from sightings and verify they are still alive.

The new system is being launched as part of a national tiger census, amid fears that the tiger will be driven to extinction in the wild within a generation.

India, which is home to the majority of tigers left in the wild, has come in for heavy criticism after it emerged last year that the tiger population had been decimated by illegal poachers, right under the noses of wildlife officials.

The government was forced to admit that 122 tigers had been slaughtered by poachers between 1999 and 2003. In the most notorious instance, it emerged that the world-renowned Sariska tiger reserve had lost all 28 of its tigers to poachers, and was empty.

Although the international trade in tiger skins and parts is banned, there is a lucrative black market. A single tiger skin can fetch as much as £10,000, while a tiger penis, used in traditional Chinese medicine for virility, sells for £14,000 per kilogram - prices for which poachers are prepared to take serious risks.

Before independence in 1947, India had some 40,000 tigers. Today, the government estimates there are 3,700 left, but some conservationists believe the true number may be as low as 2,000. Until now there has been no way of tracking individual tigers in India. The authorities have relied on physical sightings and pugmarks, or paw prints, to gauge the size of the population.

Once the census is complete, hidden cameras in India's national parks will monitor the tigers throughout the year. "This will get us information such as levels of density and levels of disturbance, which will give us a clear idea of what is really happening on the ground," said the WII's Qamar Qureshi, known in India as Tiger-man. "If photography is done intensively, we'll know what is happening to the population."

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