New fears for future of tigers as Indian census project collapses

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There are grave fears over the survival of tigers in the wild in India after the government announced that the results of a much-heralded census would be delayed by a year. The census was the centrepiece of a government initiative to protect India's dwindling tiger population after it became clear that scores were being killed by poachers in national parks, under the noses of wardens.

India was hoping, through a modern armoury of tracking devices such as radio collars, GPS systems and cameras hidden cameras in the depths of the jungle, to keep a detailed record of its tigers and thwart the poachers. But the scheme appears to be in disarray after the Environment Ministry unexpectedly announced that the results would be delayed.

The government's efforts to save the tiger "could be the biggest conservation debacle of all times", Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) said. India has the last sizeable population of tigers in the wild, accounting for 60 per cent of the world's tigers. But alarm bells started ringing last year when it was revealed that all the tigers had vanished from one of the country's premier wildlife reserves at Sariska. In the months that followed, it became clear that tigers were missing from reserves across the country.

Officially, there are 3,600 tigers in India, but the government has been forced to admit this figure is no longer accurate. Some conservationists fear there may be as few as 1,200 left in the wild.

The reason for their decline is simple: they are hunted by poachers for their skin and bones, which fetch a high price, and India's undermanned force of poorly paid wildlife reserve wardens is no match for the hunters.

With the world's conservationists up in arms, Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, formed a special task force and demanded drastic action.

The census was supposed to be the centrepiece of the proposed new safeguards, that would provide an accurate picture of how many tigers India still has and where they are. The results were supposed to be released in July. But the Environment Ministry now says it will take another year to analyse the findings.

A well-informed source says the project is facing serious problems with GPS and computer equipment being handed out to local officials who have no idea how to operate it. "The truth is they just haven't got the data," says the source.

The Indian Express reported yesterday that an independent report commissioned by the government from one of the most respected US tiger experts, John Seidensticker of the Smithsonian Institute, had found serious problems in the way the census was being carried out.

Crucially the new technology was supposed to prevent officials at remote reserves lying about tiger figures. But there are concerns that the new system is open to the abuse, since local officials have been entrusted with collecting the data.

"By the time we have got results, how many tigers will we be left with?" said P K Sen, a former head of India's Project Tiger. "Protection takes a beating if so much time is spent on counting."

"What they've got is one big muddle," said Ms Wright of the WPSI. "No tiger is safe in India. They are walking around like giant cash registers at the moment."

A tiger skin can fetch as much as £5,300. Penises can fetch £14,000 a kilogram.