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Survey Raises Fears India's Bengal Tigers May Be Wiped Out in 10 Years

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/12/20; December 20, 2005.]

Sunday Telegraph Published: Sunday, December 18, 2005

LONDON -- A new survey of India's tiger population has established there are many fewer of the animals than previously believed, prompting fears that increased poaching could lead to their extinction within a decade.

The Wildlife Trust of India has revealed there are few or no tigers left in at least six of the country's main reserves. According to official statistics, Namdapha in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh had 61 tigers in 2002, but the trust assesses that there is only one animal left now. In Buxa in West Bengal, where 32 Indian tigers, also known as Royal Bengal tigers, were reported in 1997, none is thought to remain.

The disturbing new figures come a month before a planned national survey of tigers in India. "This is an extremely worrying development," said Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India. "We're afraid that the poachers will now move on to the other, better-known reserves where tigers are still doing well."

Unless the current rate of decline is reversed, the country's tiger population, 3,500 officially but perhaps as low as 1,500, could be wiped out by 2015.

"There's very little chance of saving the tiger now," said Belinda Wright, the British director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "It's got to the stage where it's beyond a crisis and the Indian government is in complete denial about what's going on. We've lost the battle."

The current wave of poaching is being driven by the escalating demand for tiger skins in Tibet. The skins are much sought-after as fashionable additions to traditional garments worn to weddings, horse festivals and at New Year. The Wildlife Trust of India is pressing for the establishment of a wildlife crime bureau and for the government to hold talks about the illegal trade with the Chinese authorities.

"It's a huge criminal racket," said Kumar.

"A villager can earn as much in one night from poisoning and skinning a tiger as he could earn from farming in five years. Eventually, that skin can sell for up to $6,000 US in Lhasa."

Other reserves from which tigers have disappeared include Dampha in the eastern state of Mizoram, Sariska in the western state of Rajasthan and in Indravati in the central state of Chhattisgarh.

"There's only one lonely tigress left in Palamau," said Kumar, referring to the reserve in the central state of Jharkhand.

"It's very sad. She can be heard calling out for a mate, but there's no response."

Conservationists are particularly critical of the failure of India's wildlife authorities to bolster its forestry service. There has been little or no recruitment of forestry staff in more than 20 years and no training in a decade. The aging guards are no longer equipped to deter highly motivated, well-organized bands of armed poachers.

The majority of tigers living outside the reserves, up to half of the total tiger population, have already been destroyed.

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