A small nature reserve in India is being credited with reversing the decline of the world's tiger population, which is constantly threatened by the illegal trade in animal parts.
A rally in the population of Bengal tigers at the Panna reserve, in Madhya Pradesh, has given hope to campaigners because numbers of the animals are continuing to dwindle through poaching and the destruction of habitats. British conservation agencies have accepted that any campaign will be futile without government action against organised crime, which can make more than £6,000 from one tiger.
Up to 300 tigers are killed each year in India – home to about half of the worldwide population of about 6,000, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a campaigning organisation.
However, a five-year project based at the 200 square mile Panna reserve has seen the population there grow by about 25. Despite the relatively small rise, it makes it one of the few areas in the world where the tiger is starting to flourish.
The tigers' ability to roam in the surrounding areas has been hampered by illegal sandstone mines and water sources being polluted by waste from state-owned diamond mines. Inside the park, illegal grazing and logging has devastated the tigers' habitat. Because of international pressure, the state government has closed some of the mines.
Scientists have used radio collars to chart the movements of the animals inside the park in an effort to work out how far they are forced to roam to catch declining numbers of prey. But the greater protection given to the tigers has increased the chances of cubs reaching breeding age. The leader of the project, Dr Raghunandan Singh Chundawat, said the survival of one tigress meant the population increased by 17 through breeding of successive generations over five years.
Poachers are kept at bay by guards, normally ill-equipped but given motorcycles and a troop carrier by the British-based charity Global Tiger Patrol. The guards have also been supplied with high-speed patrol boats and jungle training to counter the poachers, who have already killed 54 tigers in the country this year, far outstripping the small increase in numbers at the reserve.
Poaching stems from the vibrant demand for different parts of the tiger across the world, the EIA said. Huge seizures of tiger skins have indicated a resurgence in the trade, even overtaking the demand for bones and other organs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Different parts are used to make tiger-bone wine, tiger plasters and aphrodisiacs.
Smugglers bring the tiger parts across the border to Nepal and Burma. From there they are shipped across the world, most notably to Japan, China and the United States. Despite the sharp falls in the tiger population, the environmental agency knows of only one major trader having being prosecuted in India over the last 15 years and that trader only received a short prison term.
The EIA said there was evidence that animal smuggling was part of organised criminal networks, which also dealt in drugs and guns.
Debbie Banks, a senior campaigner at the EIA, said: "The Indian Prime Minister's office needs to wake up to this. If they put some effort into it, one big case will send a message out to say that wildlife crime does not pay.
"Panna shows that the task is not impossible but it shouldn't fall on to the shoulders of just a few people. The tiger acts as a symbol for the health of India, and the success in Panna acts as hope for both people and wildlife."
The tiger has already come through one previous crisis in India in the early 1970s, when trophy hunting and the destruction of forests reduced its population to about 1,800. However, since the recovery, wildlife laws have not been enforced, leading to the current plight of the Bengal tiger, conservationists said.
The Bengal is one of only five surviving sub-species of tiger in the world and makes up about 60 per cent of the total population. Three sub-species have become extinct in the last 60 years.