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The Indian tiger is more at risk now than it ever was

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in New Delhi

It was 24 years ago that the government, waking up to the fact that the Royal Bengal Tiger, India's pride and joy, was vanishing at a rate rapid enough to raise fears of extinction that it launched Project Tiger.

That was on April 1 of 1973, and at the time, 1,827 tigers were recorded as being alive in Indian jungles at the time.

Twentyfour years later, the estimate -- for 1993, which is the latest year for which figures are available - is that the tiger population in the country today is a mere 3,750.

True, that is an improvement over 1,827 -- but not when you consider that nearly a quarter of a century has elapsed. And even more interestingly, as late as 1989, 4,334 tigers were alive in Indian forests -- so the population of the endangered beast is actually declining, even despite protection.

Just how crucial India is to the continued survival of the species can be estimated by the fact that of a total of 6,000 tigers believed alive in the world, India has two thirds. And even as the Indian tiger population shrinks with every passing year, elsewhere in the world various species of the beast -- the Caspian Tiger, the Javan Tiger and the Balinese Tiger -- have already become extinct.

India for its part has just the one species -- the Royal Bengal Tiger aka Pantherea Tigris Tigris.

And what is the future of the beast considered the most majestic of the various species of tigers? In one word, bleak. A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, published under the title, The Political Wilderness -- India's Tiger Crisis indicates that the Royal Bengal Tiger is being poached at the rate of one a day.

Brigadier Ranjit Talwar, who heads the tiger conservation cell of the World Wildlife Fund, says that the new census, likely to be out in September , will probably confirm fears of widespread poaching and consequent decline in the tiger population in the country.

Despite a global ban on trading in tigers and tiger-parts which was put in place in 1975, the illicit trade continues and is currently valued at $6 billion a year. And the main reason is that the body parts of tigers are used in the manufacture of various patent medicines of Chinese origin.

"Just as herbs are used in the preparation of Ayurvedic medicines, tiger parts, mostly bones, are used in the preparation of various Chinese medicines. And this in turn means that there is a lucrative trade in tiger smuggling, mostly to China," says Brigadier Talwar.

The escalating risk that the Bengal Tiger now faces owes to the fact that with the tiger population almost non-existent in most other parts of the world, the international mafia has begun focusing on India, where the tiger still exists in numbers. And given that profit margins are high enough to make the risks acceptable, and that there is increasing demand in the market, the Indian tiger is more at risk now than it ever was.

As if these factors were not enough, the destruction of its natural habitat, and problems arising from weak conservation laws and lack of proper enforcement procedures, have only added to the problems the tigers face.

Official apathy is also a strong contributing factor. "After Indira Gandhi, no Indian prime minister has shown any interest in the conservation of wildlife," says Brigadier Talwar with heat.

Interestingly, though facts and figures are universally bleak, officialdom continues sanguine. "When Project Tiger was launched," says Dr P K Sen, director of the project, "there were nine tiger reserves in India, now it has gone up to 23. Yes, there is a threat to the tiger's existence, but I deny the EIA report that tigers are being poached at the rate of one a day in India."

What Dr Sen's statement ignores, of course, is the fact that concern centers not around the number of tiger reserves, but of the tigers themselves. If the number of reserves have grown from 9 to 23 in 25 years, then the fact that the tiger population has not kept pace with that growth only makes it all the more alarming.

Dr Sen, of course, has an explanation. "More than 50 per cent of the tigers in India are outside the reserve areas. And nearly 8 million people stay near tiger reserves. So when tigers come out of the reserves and kill humans, they are in turn killed -- and this cannot be called poaching."

True. But it can -- and must -- be deemed bad management of the reserves, if despite all the manpower deployed, fully 50 per cent of the tigers in India exist outside the reserves, and the ones who do live within the reserves cannot be kept on them. Meanwhile, officials await the next survey result, which will give a more accurate picture of the tiger population extant today.

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