Tigers fading fast in last stronghold

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The Independent Online

Hope is fading in the fight to save the tiger in India, the animal's last stronghold, according to Indian conservationists. Resurgent poaching and feeble official protection have combined to put the animal, India's national symbol, on the road to extinction, say the country's leading tiger experts in a BBC documentary to be screened tomorrow.

They allege that the current Indian government simply does not have the political will to take the strong action now necessary to prevent the world's biggest cat from vanishing, in the face of an onslaught of illegal hunting.

Official tiger protection measures, they say, are a mixture of mismanagement, inept science and ineffective enforcement ­ plus a continuing unwillingness to admit the truth about plunging populations of the species.

Tiger numbers, which officially stand at nearly 4,000, are rapidly falling and may actually have dropped below 1,200, says Valmik Thapar, the conservationist who is the Indian tiger's best known champion. "I think we are living with the last tigers of India," he tells the BBC2 documentary, Battle To Save The Tiger.

The disappearance of India's wild tigers ­ one of the world's most charismatic animal species ­ would mark one of the most sinister milestones yet in the history of the degradation of the earth's environment by people.

It would also be a humiliation for India, demonstrating that a great country was unable to conserve a key part of its wildlife heritage. Although concern for the animals goes back decades, it has only become apparent recently that the plight of the Indian (or Bengal) tiger is critical.

This is because in 1973 the Indian government launched Project Tiger, a powerful and ambitious conservation programme which was very successful for more than 20 years. Personally backed by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, it succeeded in more than doubling the country's tiger population from 2,000 to more than 4,300.

However, in recent years it has become clear that the original impetus behind Project Tiger had been lost and the programme had fallen apart ­ a situation graphically illustrated by the revelation in 2005 that every tiger at the country's premier reserve, Sariska in Rajasthan, had been killed. Tigers in other reserves were also shown to have been hunted out, although the government was claiming they were still there.

Last year the Indian government finally scrapped Project Tiger, and replaced it with a new body, the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

But the conservationists in the programme, which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, allege that this is even weaker than the body it has replaced.

Karan Singh, a senior politician and an early chairman of Project Tiger, compares the situation 30 years ago with today. "Why were we successful? Because Indira Gandhi's political will was behind it," he says. "Everyone knew round the country if something goes wrong, Indira Gandhi was there, and was going to take them to task. But I don't think that the government of India as such today has that sort of commitment or that sort of passion. The current decline continues, and if we are unable to reverse the process, then it is only a matter of time before the tiger disappears."

Valmik Thapar, the author of numerous books on Indian natural history, said the responsibility for the tiger's survival was "100 per cent" that of the Indian government. "If the government wants to save tigers it can, if it doesn't want to save tigers, it'll allow them to go extinct," he said.

He specifically complains that major posts in environmental agencies are being left unfilled. "We are aware that we're facing the worst tiger and wildlife crisis in the history of our country, so what do we do to make matters worse? We leave the key positions in our federal governance mechanism vacant," he said.

"The result is that never before in the history of this country has wildlife and forest governance been at such a low ebb. In such a situation, it is inevitable that our tigers, leopards, lions and other wildlife will vanish."

According to the documentary, produced and directed by Mike Birkhead for the BBC Natural History Unit, the current poaching of Bengal tigers is being driven by two markets ­ the market for tiger bones, used in traditional Chinese medicine, and for tiger skins, used in ceremonial dress in Tibet. Both skins and bones are being smuggled out of India, and the trade is lucrative in the extreme ­ a skin can fetch £10,000, while the bones fetch about £3,000 per kilogram.

The tiger,Panthera tigris, is the biggest of the "big cats". At the start of the 20th century, there were probably 100,000 tigers in the world, with about 40,000 in India, their main stronghold. There were then eight sub-species of tiger, but the Balinese became extinct in 1937, the last Caspian was shot in 1970 and the Javan succumbed to habitat loss and hunting in the 1980s.

All five remaining sub-species ­ the Bengal, the Amur (in Asian Russia), the Indochinese, the South China and the Sumatran ­ are classed by the World Conservation Union as critically endangered. The official total world population now is between 5,000 and 7,000, but those figures were compiled nearly a decade ago. The true world total is likely to be very much lower.

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