India’s tigers face extinction

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India’s tigers face extinction

Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Foreign Correspondent

Last Updated: July 02. 2009 7:05PM UAE / July 2. 2009 3:05PM GMT

KOLKATA // Tigers in India are being killed at an alarming rate, with conservationists calling the situation a “disgrace” and warning that the country’s national animal may soon become extinct.

A resurgence in poaching and a lack of official protection have combined to put the tiger under threat. Shrinking habitats are also forcing tigers into conflicts with humans and even into fighting among themselves, experts said.

According to most conservationists, hope is fading in the fight to save the tiger in India, the animal’s last stronghold which used to be called “land of the tigers” by many.

A century ago 100,000 tigers roamed India. But according to the latest 2008 census, there are only 1,411 of the animals left – down from 3,600 six years ago.

Valmik Thapar, a conservationist who has written many books on tigers, said the number of the tigers in the wild in India could be less than 1,000 and their population was falling.

“What we have seen is a national treasure looted by poachers. I think we are living with the last tigers of India and by 2015 there could be no tigers left in India, if the current trend of disappearance of the animal is not checked,” Mr Thapar said.

In 2005, the government was told all 26 tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan had “disappeared”. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, set up the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a national task force to monitor organisations trying to save the endangered species.

Six years ago, in Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, known as the “tiger state”, there were 40 tigers. But following a weeks-long investigation in the 543 sq km reserve, a special investigation team sent by the government reported two weeks ago that the entire population of the tigers had “vanished”.

A NTCA report shows the rate of decline in the number of tigers has been rising. In 2007 and 2008, 41 and 53 tigers died respectively. But already in the first half of 2009, 45 have died.

Tito Joseph, the programme manager of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), said authorities did not learn from the Sariska tragedy.

“Poaching is the key reason of the tigers’ disappearance from Panna. Unless poaching is not checked in India, we have to face many more Sariskas and Pannas soon,” he said.

“Weak and aged wildlife guards who cannot crack down on the nexus of poachers should be replaced with younger and smarter men. Supported by intelligence-led enforcements, we have to raise a dedicated tiger task force to be spread over all tiger reserves of the country.”

Although it is illegal, selling dead tigers is lucrative and fuels the poaching spree. Tigers are coveted for their bones, which are used in Chinese herbal remedies. A skin can fetch US$20,000 (Dh73,000), while the bones fetch $6,000 per kilogram, according to a recent BBC documentary. A restaurant in Taiwan or South Korea selling tiger-penis soup at $400 to $500 per serving might pay as much as $4,500 for the whole penis of a tiger.

Conservationists who have worked on the trail of poachers believe some wildlife officials are involved in poaching.

“What we have seen is the tacit agreement between corrupt officials and the poacher,” said Belinda Wright, the director of the WPSI.

“India lost its last cheetah in the 1950s when hunting was still legal. Now, when millions are spent on conservation, we are still losing tigers. It is a national disgrace.”

However, authorities said they were trying to reverse the trend.

As soon as Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, learnt of the disappearance of tigers from Panna, he wrote to Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, asking him to personally intervene.

Mr Chouhan has since transferred the field director of Panna.

Rajendra Shukla, Madhya Pradesh’s forest minister, has formed a panel of experts to investigate the disappearance of all tigers in Panna.

“The panel, apart from investigating the cause behind the tigers’ disappearance will also suggest corrective steps for protection of the tigers in the park and we shall be strict in implementation of those measures,” Mr Shukla said.

“Tigers are our assets and we are proud of them. We are serious about their protection.”

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