Tigers on brink of extinction. In 10 years they may all be gone

UN warns that poaching and habitat loss have reduced the numbers to fewer than 3,000 animals in the whole of India
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India is failing to protect its tigers, which are being driven rapidly towards extinction by poaching and habitat loss, according to a fiercely critical United Nations report to be published next week.

Unless the country takes radical action now to halt the decline, including the setting up of a high-powered national wildlife crime unit, Indian tigers will disappear within five to 10 years, UN officials believe. There may be fewer than 3,000 animals left in the country.

The senior official behind the report, Rob Hepworth, said yesterday: "We believe the rate of decline of India's tiger population is accelerating and is now close to being in free-fall." Some of the country's tiger reserves may no longer hold tigers, he said.

The report, to be presented next week to the Nairobi conference of the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), is an indictment of India's attempts to look after the animal that symbolises the subcontinent's wildlife.

In uncompromising language, it lists a catalogue of weaknesses in the official tiger protection regime, on which up to $150m has been spent, much of it on tiger sanctuaries. They include lack of concern, lack of effort, lack of resources in the right place, lack of coordination, and corruption and a "culture of cover-up". The report alleges that tiger losses to poachers are deliberately concealed by government officials, and figures for the remaining animals deliberately inflated.

The report is the work of the Cites Tiger Mission, a year-long inquiry into the status of the tiger in all 14 Asian countries in which it remains, from Siberian Russia to the island of Sumatra.

The mission's main concern was the continuing demand for tiger bones for use in traditional Chinese medicine - the driving force behind poaching. It aims to set up a global plan to save the animal, to be discussed at next week's conference.

The mission concluded with three "high-level" visits earlier this year to the governments of China, Japan and India by Cites' three most senior figures; the secretary-general, Willem Wijnstekers, who is Dutch, and enforcement officer John Sellars, and the chairman of the Cites standing committee, Rob Hepworth, who are both British.

In a frank, critical report, they say that both China and Japan have made strides towards discouraging the use of tiger bones, but have had little success against poachers.

"The mission was not convinced that [Indian] tigers outside designated protected areas, or indeed those inside other than showcase reserves, are being properly protected or valued," they report.

They call for donors to stop funding tiger conservation in India "until central and state governments demonstrate that such monies will be spent, effectively, in total, and where they are needed."

The programme is basically flawed, they allege. "India's whole approach to tiger conservation and the combating of illicit trade is worthy of detailed, in-depth and independent review."

As a matter of urgency, they say, India should set up a national wildlife crime unit to investigate and take action at state and national level. "If this is not done, the decline will continue," said Mr Hepworth, who, is also the senior international wildlife official in the British Government's Environment Department.

Not the least of the report's findings was that Indian tiger poachers were not being jailed. "The manner in which arrested poachers ... are regularly supported by experienced and well-staffed legal defence teams, out of all proportion with what such individuals might be expected to afford, provides further grounds to suggest the presence of organised criminal networks," it says. "Persons charged with serious wildlife crimes and repeat offenders are regularly granted bail."

Although some officials in tiger conservation are dedicated and determined, the report says, many are not.

"Officials were clearly embarrassed when questioned closely regarding the practical implementation of the various schemes that are, outwardly, in place to further conservation and tiger protection," it says. "Madhya Pradesh prides itself as being India's 'Tiger State' but the mission found the responsible officials to be, in the main, evasive when questioned about what work was actually taking place at field level."

Many conservationists believe that official figures for tiger populations are inflated. The report says:"State administrations appear to deliberately conceal the loss of tigers to poachers."

Some forest guards do not have vehicles, weapons or radios, the report goes on. Guards in some parts of India have not been paid for 21 months. It adds: "The mission heard, from officials at all levels, of corruption and collusion among enforcement staff."

Mr Hepworth said Cites would expect a response from the India government within nine to 12 months on its demand for a national wildlife crime unit.

"There's only a very few years left for the tiger," he said. "Three subspecies are extinct already and there could be no tigers in five to 10 years, possibly less."

A century ago an estimated 100,000 tigers lived in the forests and grasslands across Asia; from the Caspian Sea to Bali in Indonesia, but in the past 60 years nearly all the grassland and much of the forest has gone, and with it the tigers.

The three sub-species already extinct are the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers.The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that less than 100 Chinese tigers remain in the wild; they are classified as "functionally extinct". Around 450 Siberian and 300 Sumatran tigers are still in existence.

Between 1,100 and 1,800 Indo-Chinese tigers are thought to be scattered through Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Bengal tiger, India's subspecies also occurs in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. The population may now be as low as 5,000 animals.