The Big Question: Can India's tigers be saved or are they now doomed to disappear?

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Why are we asking this now?

This week officials at the Panna Nature Reserve in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the so-called tiger state, revealed that there were no longer any of the big cats in the entire park. After forest officials reported not sighting any of the animals for some time, a leading wildlife organisation carried out a survey. The state's forest minister, Rajendra Shukla, confirmed that the reserve, which three years ago had up to 24 tigers, no longer had any whatsoever. Almost all are believed to have been killed by poachers.

Why is this so serious?

This is not the first time a prestigious reserve has reported that its tigers have disappeared. In 2005, it was revealed that all the tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan had also been killed by poachers. What makes this case different is that the problems faced by the park were regularly drawn to the attention of officials. A committee appointed by India's Supreme Court even warned of the potential peril facing the park and how Panna could see a repeat of what happened at Sariska. A report by the central government's forest ministry says "warning bells were sounded regularly for the past eight years" but that the local authorities did not take heed.

Dr Raghu Chundawat, an independent scientist who carried out an extensive tiger radio-collaring project in Panna and who repeatedly warned of their falling numbers, said: "We have been shouting about this for the past six years. There is a big problem. The state government is still refusing to listen."

What is the current strength of India's tiger population?

A census carried out on behalf of the government and handed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two years ago revealed that the total may be as few as 1,300 animals. The upper limit was put at 1,500. While there are no precise figures, some estimates suggest that the turn of the 20th Century, the population may have stood at 100,000. Some experts believe there may now be as few as two genetically viable populations of tigers in India, located in the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand and the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which is said to have inspired Rudyard Kipling to pen The Jungle Book.

What is responsible for this decline?

The most pressing problem is the failure of the authorities to stop poaching. Tiger pelts and body parts still drive a huge market in China and elsewhere in East Asia where they are believed to have special medicinal powers. Campaigners say that a skin can fetch £5,300 while tiger penises, said to improve sexual prowess, can be sold for up to £14,000 per kilo. The authorities suffer from a lack of trained, properly-equipped forest guards. Salaries are low and motivation is often lacking. There are widespread suggestions of bribery and corruption.

Are there any other factors?

Another more long-term reason is the increasing lack of habitats for tigers. India's large, sprawling population is increasingly coming into contact with tigers, with often fatal results for man and beast alike. Without protected habitats, there is nowhere safe for these large, roaming animals to breed and live. Certain pieces of legislation, such as the Recognition of Forest Rights Act which grants some of India's most impoverished communities the right to own and live in the forests, only add to such clashes. Experts say all the evidence shows that tigers and humans cannot safely co-exist and unless there is a willingness to set aside designated, protected areas, than the tiger's chances are not good.

What else?

Another factor is the shortage of prey species. If deer and antelope are being poached, tigers may be tempted to kill livestock, something which pushes them into further confrontation with humans.

Is global warming playing a role here?

In the Sunderbans delta at the mouth of the Ganges there are reports of rising sea levels reducing the amount of land and driving the tigers northwards. This means they are increasingly moving into human settlements. Tigers have long been feared among the fishing and honey-collecting communities that survive in the delta. It's said that few will venture into the forest without wearing a human mask attached to the back of the head. It is believed that a tiger will never attack a human being face-on. Anecdotally, there are increased reports of tigers attacking humans in these areas.

What about tigers elsewhere?

It is not just in India that tigers are suffering. Over the past 100 years, tiger populations across the world have fallen by as much as 95 per cent and are now facing extinction within their last domains. Of the nine sub-species of tiger, three – the Caspian, Javanese and Balinese – are already gone. A fourth, the South China tiger, is already considered "functionally extinct" with perhaps fewer than 30 surviving in the wild. Elsewhere the Sumatran tiger is listed as critically endangered. The others – the Indochinese, the Malayan, the Siberian and India's Bengal tiger – all face massive threats.

What has the Indian government been doing to save tigers?

As far back as 1972 when then prime minister Indira Gandhi established Project Tiger, the value of saving this hugely symbolic animal has been recognised. Tens of millions of pounds has been spent in an often disorganised series of conservation efforts. Today there are more than 40 reserves. And some positive things are being done; last year, three tigers were airlifted into the Sariska reserve in an effort to try and restock the population. The government's National Tiger Conservation Authority – tasked with saving the animal – now wants to ban tourists from the centre of most of the country's reserves. Sab Prakash Yadav, the organisation's joint director, recently said: "Tourism creates a disturbance through vehicles, noise pollution, garbage and the need to provide facilities."



What is the mood among conservationists?

It is a mixture of despair and forced optimism. "This is a catastrophe," Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said about the loss of the Panna tigers. "It just shows that have not learned any lessons from Sariska. The problem is the relationship between the central and state governments. It is pretty sordid story, actually."

So could the tiger population already be doomed?

Some experts say the small size of the population makes the future of the tiger scientifically unviable. However, such conservationists still chose to carry on their work in the hope of a miracle. Ashok Kumar, deputy chair of the Wildlife Trust of India, said it was essential that attention was paid to improving the training of forest guards, boosting their number and employing park directors who had the dedication to deal with the poaching problem. He said he was heartened by the government's current environment minister and that there were populations in several regions of India that were viable. He said: "The long-term future of the tiger can be saved."

Is there any chance of survival for the Indian tiger?

Yes...

* India knows the value of the tiger, and there appears to be determination to do something.

* Poaching has been stopped in other parts of the world.

* In the past couple of years, India has become educated about this. The census of 2007 may act as a wake-up call and lead to greater action.

No...

* Some experts believe the population is already too small for the animal to have a viable future.

* The authorities seem unable to stop poaching, either confronting poachers or those who trade in tiger.

* India's population is growing, putting more pressure on the natural habitats upon which the tigers rely.

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