The disappearing tiger

A century ago, 100,00 tigers roamed the world. Today it may be around 3,000. And poaching and official indifference mean that even India's premier reserve is not immune
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The Independent Online

Backpackers are still beating a path to the Tiger Den guesthouse. A short dusty walk inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve, the Den can afford to overcharge a little, despite the modest accommodation, because there's no competition for the daily traffic of budget travellers.

Backpackers are still beating a path to the Tiger Den guesthouse. A short dusty walk inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve, the Den can afford to overcharge a little, despite the modest accommodation, because there's no competition for the daily traffic of budget travellers.

Deeper inside the reserve dominated by the sharp cliffs and narrow valleys of the Aravali mountains, a medieval castle stands sentinel on the hilltop. Once the hunting lodge of Maharaja Jai Singh of Alwar, the Sariska palace caters for the more luxury end of the market. Both places are busy.

The lure of the grassy glades and woodland, offering the promise of cheetahs, antelope and leopards is as strong as ever. After dark, there is the chance of seeing porcupines nosing around the ruins of the Gahr temples.

What you stand no chance of seeing, however, is a tiger.

India's premier reserve, a haven for the great cat that, throughout history, has evoked admiration and fear, is empty. Poaching and official indifference have blighted the Sariska park in a story that's being repeated through the sub-continent.

Sariska's deputy director, Braj Mohan Sharma, protests there is no collusion, only a lack of resources. "We haven't got the money, and the wardens cannot match the poachers. Our wardens are unfit and aren't even armed. There are only five or six guns between all of them and they cannot take on the gangs who are often heavily armed", he says, pointing out that the situation was not unique to Sariska - the entire staff at the Valmiki tiger reserve in Bihar had walked out because they had not been paid for 14 months.

The deadly combination of corruption and hunting has so devastated the world's population of tigers that conservationists fear the predators are facing danger of imminent extinction.

Just a 100 years ago, there were around 100,000 tigers worldwide. The official world population now is between 5,000 and 7,000. But those figures were compiled seven years ago mainly from figures supplied by various governments that have since been largely discredited.

The real figure, according to new research, could be as few as 3,000 and falling. Unless the trend is reversed, we may see the tigers in India, which has 60 per cent of the world population of the animal, disappear by 2020, with just a handful remaining in pockets in other countries.

The new figures are based on shocking revelations from India. The government in Delhi had claimed its strenuous conservation efforts - launched with the much publicised Project Tiger -- had maintained tiger numbers at about 3,600. But an investigation ordered by the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, discovered every single tiger at the country's premier reserve, Sariska in Rajasthan, had been killed.

The inquiry into the 765 sq km sanctuary was carried out by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a law agency modelled on the FBI. It concluded that official incompetence and corruption were among the main reasons why the slaughter of the 28 tigers had taken place and "what happened at Sariska is just a symptom of a larger disease afflicting tiger sanctuaries across the country".

The list of disappearing tigers across the country include 24 from the Palamu reserve in Bihar, six big cats - tigers and leopards - at the Bandhavgarth national park in Madhya Pradesh and 21 from the Panna reserve in the same state.

Now conservationists like Valmik Thapar, a member of the Prime Minister's Tiger Task Force, say the real numbers of tigers in the country is more likely to be about 2,000 and could be as low as 1,800. At least 1,500 have been poached in the past 10 years and about 150, the population of two national parks are slaughtered every year.

The slaughter is driven by the lucrative international poaching trade. A tiger skin, used as a rug or for clothing, fetches £10,000 and is particularly popular among Arab customers, while the head, used to mount as a trophy brings between £600 and £800; the bones, used in powder form for more than a hundred prescriptions of Chinese traditional medicine as well as wine, is about £3,000 per kg; the penis, used as virility pills is priced at £14,000 for a 100g box; teeth, made into jewellery or sold as amulets with supposedly special powers can be as much as £500 each and the fat, used to treat rheumatism and muscular ailments goes for £500 a kg.

The Independent has obtained the latest figures for tigers in other countries, compiled by wildlife organisations. They show the overwhelming majority of them have experienced alarming decline in numbers.

China claimed to have 140 tigers when the figures were compiled seven years ago. Research by the London-based Environmental Investigations Agency now says it is now about 103, while Mr Thapar believes it could be as few as 25.

Cambodia, with a maximum official tiger population of 300 in 1998, now has about 150, according to reports compiled by the Word Wildlife Fund for Nature, WildAid and World Conservation Society.

Burma's figures have declined from 465 to between 125 and 150 according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Vietnam, which had 200 has lost at least 50, according to its own minister of agriculture.

In Nepal, in the grip of a civil war, nothing is known of the fate of the 96 adults and 161 cubs tallied between 1994 and 1996. The rhino population has dropped by a quarter in the past five years.

The Nepalese and Indian governments claim Maoist rebels on both sides of the border are heavily involved in poaching.

The Indian government, which had long claimed that reports of the decimation of the tiger population was exaggeration by environmental groups, has now established a new task force.

The woman appointed by the Prime Minister to lead the task force, Sunita Narain, director of India's Centre for Science and Environment, said: "There has been a decline in the tiger population everywhere - India, Laos, Myanmar (Burma). Tigers are almost on the verge of extinction. The issue if of great concern ... The menace of poaching has been very virulent across Asia."

Mr Thapar, a member of the Tiger Task Force and internationally acclaimed author, said: "All the indications are there are no more that 1,800 tigers left in India, the figure of 3,600 has been grossly inflated. We have been saying a disaster has been unfolding and the CBI investigation shows how the figures have been consistently exaggerated. India is in focus because it is meant to be a sort of world reservoir of tigers. But the situation is bad everywhere, we doubt if there are more than 25 tigers left in China."

Dr Ullas Karanth, senior conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York, who has been carrying out research in India, said: "The government has been using totally unscientific methods to calculate the numbers of tigers. There was a serious attempt to protect the tiger between 1970 and 1990, but that is no longer the case."

Debbie Banks, a senior campaigner for the EIA, agrees: "Even in 1998, the estimations were based on government figures, and not independently checked. There has undoubtedly been a very serious deterioration since then. We are facing a huge crisis."

Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Society of India said: "This is probably the biggest conservation scandal anywhere in modern times."

The poaching trade stretches from the Indian sub-continent to the Middle East, Japan, south-east Asia and parts of eastern Europe. The few seizures which take place highlight the enormity of the problem.

In October 2003, customs officers near Lhasa in Tibet stopped a truck containing 31 tiger, 581 leopard and 778 otter skins. Some of the carcasses had old Delhi newspapers stuck to their backs. In March 2004, another seizure in Nepal yielded 165 pieces of tiger bones, 185 pieces of rhino skins and assorted leopard and otter skins. Four months later, a raid at Kanpur, in India, led to the recovery of 456 tiger and leopard claws. On 11 July last year, police in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, found four sacks of fresh tiger bones, two tiger skins and eight leopard skins.

The kingpin of the smuggling trade in India, the authorities claim, is a man called Sansar Chand, who has been charged with poaching more than 100 tigers and several hundred skins of leopards, panthers and other wildlife. He is said to work closely with Maoist guerrillas on both sides of the Indo-Nepal border.

Chand, 44, from Delhi, was first charged with tiger poaching in 1974 but had remarkable success in avoiding significant jail time. He was convicted in 1982 but ended up serving just a 18 month sentence after a series of appeals. He was arrested again last year, but then released on bail despite warnings from the police that he is likely to flee and is currently believed to be in hiding in Nepal.

The Indian forestry authorities say they are unable to cope with the poaching gangs due to chronic underfunding. According to the government's own findings there had been no fresh recruitment of staff since 1987, the average age of those employed is 53, most are deemed physically unfit and 75 per cent were untrained to handle wildlife.

For now, the tourists keep coming to Sariska. There is other game but they will not, of course, be seeing any tigers. The fear now is that is the shape of things to come for anyone hoping to see one of the world's great predators in its natural habitat.