In the wilds of an Indian nature reserve, a soap opera is gripping the nation. The hero of the drama is a four-year-old male tiger who was flown to the Rajasthan park by wildlife officials and released last week. Yesterday, the heroine, a similarly aged female, was also set free from a holding pen inside the reserve. Now it is up to the two cats to play their parts.
"This is a real attempt to try and do something to help the tigers," said Valmik Thapar, a tiger expert and member of India's National Board of Wildlife. "There has been real consultation with the experts, and the tigers were carefully selected. All efforts have gone into doing this the right way."
The two wild tigers were moved to the Sariska Tiger Reserve from the Ranthambore National Park, also in Rajasthan, as part of a relocation experiment that has not been tried in India for at least 70 years. If successful, officials hope to move three more wild tigers to Sariska in the next six months.
The experiment is an attempt to confront India's most pressing wildlife crisis: a tiger population that once stood at more than 100,000 but could now be as low as 1,300. Loss of habitat and a failure to prevent poachers supplying the Asian trade in tiger parts has brought to the edge of extinction an animal that more than any other symbolises the majesty of nature.
Nowhere better demonstrates that tragedy than Sariska, which was once a royal hunting ground before being turned into a national park in 1979. In 2005 it was revealed that poachers had succeeded in wiping out all the tigers in the park. Shocked, the Indian government backed plans to relocate wild tigers from other parts of the country to try to raise the numbers. Ranthambore has 45 tigers, including 14 cubs, and there have been reports of territorial fights in which the older animals chasing some of the younger tigers from the forest.
Last week, Indian Air Force helicopters flew the Ranthambore tigers to Sariska. The male was released over the weekend and reportedly killed a cow that had been left for it. Yesterday the female was freed. Officials hope the pair will soon mate.
Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said this was the first time that a scientifically monitored experiment (both the tigers are fitted with tracking collars) had been tried anywhere in the world. "It's a bold initiative," she said. "Tigers are very tenacious – Ranthambore has itself twice had its tigers wiped out, and they bounced back."
The decline of the tiger is not confined to India. Within the last century it is estimated that tiger populations across the world have fallen by 95 per cent. Of the nine known sub-species of tiger, three are already extinct while there may be as few as 30 South China tigers in the wild.
While India's population of tigers has fallen drastically, it is perhaps here that conservationists are fighting hardest for the animals. "The killing of the entire population in Sariska was devastating, but we hope the reintroduction of the species in this reserve will spawn a new population and ultimately expand the region where tigers can grow and flourish," said Dr Sybille Klenzendorf, a spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature. "It is imperative that we take action now to keep [tigers] from disappearing altogether."