Tiger census starts in India in bid to halt big cat's slide to extinction

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The Independent Online

Wildlife experts in India have begun the largest census in history of the endangered tiger in an effort to prevent the world's biggest cat from being poached to extinction.

Hundreds of officials armed with radio collars and night-vision cameras fanned out yesterday across the largest natural tiger habitat of West Bengal's sparsely populated Sunderbans, a 10,000sq-km (3,900sq-mile) area of mangrove marshland on the eastern coast.

Using speedboats to help cover the vast marshlands, the experts are taking part in a detailed count of the tiger based on sightings of paw prints, or pugmarks, as well as using newer, hi-tech methods.

India has been criticised by conservationists, who are alarmed by the continuing decline of the tiger. A century ago, there were an estimated 100,000 tigers worldwide, but now numbers have dwindled to less than a few thousand.

The tiger is protected in India, but this has failed to prevent the animal from being poached by heavily armed criminal gangs who can earn up to $50,000 (£28,500) for each carcass.

Last March, for instance, it emerged that the entire tiger population of up to 28 animals living in the famous tiger reserve of Sariska had been wiped out by poachers who make money from the illegal trade in skin, bones and dried organs used in Chinese medicine. Poaching and official indifference have blighted many Indian tiger reserves, which are poorly protected.

Conservationists have also criticised the pugmark system of counting tigers, which they argue gives an inaccurate assessment of the true size of a breeding population.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has, in response, formed a special taskforce to suggest ways of saving tigers and improving on the census. For the first time, the census will employ specially designed computer programmes, camera traps and radio-collars tracked by satellite to avoid any duplication in recording pugmarks.

"This census is the world's biggest and the most scientific to date," Pradeep Vyas, the census chief in the Sunderbans, told Reuters.

The last census, in 2003, estimated there were between 260 and 280 tigers in the Indian part of the Sunderbans, home also to hundreds of saltwater crocodiles and rare river dolphins. Mr Vyas said the first phase of the latest census would end next week, before which experts would also try to study the general health of the forest and the animals preyed on by the tigers for food.

A century ago, there were about 40,000 tigers in India, but now officials estimate there are at most 3,700, with some environmental groups saying that the true figure could be as low as 2,000.

The slaughter is driven by the lucrative trade in tiger parts. A tiger skin can fetch £10,000 and is popular among Arab customers for use as rugs, while a mounted head can command a price of between £600 and £800. Tiger bones used in Chinese medicine sell for about £3,000 per kilogram, while a penis, for use in virility pills, is priced at £14,000 for 100g.