The face of a doomed species

Tigers driven to edge of extinction by poachers and loss of habitat

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The disastrous impact of poaching and the destruction of the natural habitat of one of the planet's most threatened animals will be made clear tomorrow when the Indian government is told that its remaining tiger population could be as low as 1,300.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will be told that drastic action has to be taken against the two forces threatening the big cat's chance of survival.

"That size of a population is scientifically not viable," said Valmik Thapar, a tiger expert and member of the National Board of Wildlife, which is due to convene in Delhi for a meeting chaired by Mr Singh. "But in the real world you have to try as hard as you can."

Along with the polar bear, the tiger symbolises perhaps more than any other large creature the majesty and power of the natural world. At the same time the tawdry story of the tiger's decline – not just in India but in other countries where it clings on desperately – is a stark indictment of mankind's apparent inability to preserve the natural habitats on which it depends.

No one knows precisely how many tigers are left in India, home to perhaps 80 per cent of the world's remaining animals and which, at the turn of the 20th century, was estimated to have up to 100,000 animals. It is believed there were about 5,000 at the start of the decade.

The most recent census, conducted in 2001 and 2002, put the figure at 3,642. But many experts questioned the way in which that count was handled and a new census was carried out by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India using a more scientifically robust method. While the findings will not be formally announced until the end of the year, preliminary results of the new count have put the population at between 1,300 and 1,500.

"The new figures and facts came as no surprise to conservationists, although the government is still recovering from the shock," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which has several tiger programmes. "In Madhya Pradesh – which is known as the Tiger State – the study has shown a loss of 61 per cent on the figures of the previous tiger census. The state of Maharashtra has shown a loss of 57 per cent."

She added: "In the past census... many tigers were found outside the tiger reserves. The new study shows virtually no tigers outside the tiger reserves."

Experts say the reasons for the decline of the tiger are simple. Not enough is being done to halt the continued poaching of the animals, which are highly prized in China and other parts of east Asia for their pelts and body parts. A tiger skin can fetch up to £5,300 while tiger penises – traditionally believed to have near-magical properties – can fetch £14,000 per kilo.

The tiger has suffered from a loss of its habitat as a result of large-scale mining and hydro-power dam projects. The loss of habitat and prey encourages tigers, pure carnivores, to seize domestic livestock which in turn aggravates local farmers. The tiger is the national symbol but, in the past five years, poachers have been killing them at the rate of one a day, campaigners believe.

Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigations Agency, a London-based campaign group, said development projects often resulted in the displacement of communities who are left with a choice of moving to the slums of large cities or into the forests. "Living in the forests brings them into conflict with wildlife and the under-resourced, under-trained, ill-equipped forest department staff," she said.

Mr Thapar, 55, who has written 15 books about tigers during three decades working with the animals, has said it would now "take a miracle" to save them. He warned of the impact of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, a piece of legislation passed last year and expected to become law in the coming months, which grants some of India's most impoverished communities the right to own and live in the forests.

The problem, he said, was that all evidence showed humans and tigers could not co-exist. "If you are not going to set aside habitats where there are no humans then you cannot have tigers," he said.

The decline of the tiger is not isolated to India. In the past century, tiger populations across the world have slumped by 95 per cent and, across a broad chunk of Asia, tigers are now confronting extinction. Indeed, of the nine known sub-species of tiger, three (the Caspian, Javanese and Balinese) are already extinct while another, the South China tiger, is nearing extinction in the wild with perhaps fewer than 30 surviving.

An estimated 4,000 of the South China sub-species – the only one native to central and southern China –roamed the country 50 years ago but its habitat has been dramatically reduced by the country's rapid economic growth and the sub-species was declared officially extinct in 2003. Just this week, the Chinese authorities banned hunting in a mountainous area of Shaanxi province of north-west China where a young South China tiger was apparently sighted by a farmer. The sighting has generated much excitement among conservationists and a team of experts has been set up to conduct a search.

Ms Wright said that, in India, there may now only be two genetically viable populations of Bengal tiger, as the country's sub-species is known. Those live in the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttaranchal and the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which is said to haveinspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Book.

There have been the occasional pieces of good news. Last month about 20 tigers were discovered in a mountainous forest range in the western state of Maharashtra from where they were thought to have long disappeared. But among such rare flashes of hope, experts say the evidence of the tiger's ongoing decline have been all too clear. In February 2005, it was revealed all the tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan had been killed by poachers. Meanwhile, the size of the continuing trade in illegal tiger parts has been revealed by activists working undercover in places such as Tibet where there is flourishing business.

A senior official in India's Environment Ministry said tomorrow's meeting would evaluate progress at implementing recommendations made at the last meeting 18 months ago.

"Everyone is waiting for the [official] tiger report – even the Prime Minister," the official told the Asian Age newspaper.

"It is only after the report is tabled that we will get the real picture, which we know is not going to be rosy. We know that we have lost large numbers of our big cats."

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