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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Where have all the tigers gone?
White Bengal tiger
Tiger counts are believed to be wildly inaccurate
The recent suspension of eight forestry officials for failing to protect tigers in India's Sariska National Park has highlighted the setbacks to Project Tiger, a major conservation effort established in the 1980s by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. What has gone wrong?

Authorities in Rajasthan acted as part of an ongoing investigation into the disappearance of many - if not all - of the state's tigers.

Conservationists say the number of tigers in India has dropped alarmingly in recent years, and that forest officials in many game reserves have been covering up the problem.

The latest crisis was brought on by the discovery that for months, game wardens in Sariska National Park, one of India's most visited reserves, have been overstating the number of tigers they have.

Valmik Thapar, one of India's most respected tiger experts, told BBC World Service's Analysis programme that the alarm was raised when a team from the Wildlife Institute of India, doing a training course on tracking tigers, failed to find any evidence of them in 15 days of looking.

"Basically, there have been no tigers in Sariska since October 2004," Mr Thapar added.

"While I was there two weeks ago, there were 20 Jeeps full of foreign tourists, and the guides were pointing, saying 'maybe a tiger's going to come from the bush'. There are no tigers to come from the bush."

Responsibility and blame

India is home to 40% of the world's tigers and was said to have over 4,000 animals in the late 1980s, after the late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, launched Project Tiger - a system of national parks and sanctuaries aimed at protecting them.

Official records now claim there are 3,723 - but many conservationists say the true figure is much lower.

The disappearance of India's most prized natural symbol has prompted a national outcry.

Bengal tigers
Poaching is an underground criminal activity that is simply not addressed in our tiger reserves in India
Belinda Wright, Wildlife Protection Society of India

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered an investigation and already the Rajasthan state government has started sacking several of its park officials.

LN Dave, the Minister for Forest and Environment in Rajasthan, has said he accepts responsibility for the loss of tigers - but not the blame.

"I accept the responsibility - but in reality, we see that these events have taken place because of the lax attitude of subordinate officials.

"Whoever is found liable will be punished."

Mr Dave, and other state officials, have suggested that extensive mining and farming might have scared the tigers away.

It has been hopefully suggested that the tigers might be hiding, and return later.

Vijendra Pahul Singh, an MP who speaks for the state government, said that poaching is widespread throughout India.

"This has been happening all over the country, not just Rajasthan," he added.

"It's very sad that in Sariska, it was done on a bigger scale. We are very sad about it, we are very concerned about it, and we will see that this is not repeated again on other predators, like panthers."

Conservationists are more explicit about the extent of the damage poachers have done.

Low-density populations

Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said that there has been an alarming rise in poaching across the Bengal tiger's traditional habitat, from the Indian subcontinent down to Thailand and Cambodia.

"Poaching is an underground criminal activity that is simply not addressed in our tiger reserves in India," she said.

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi established the Project Tiger plan

The main reason, it is believed, is the high price to be gained from the use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine.

The head, skin, claws, meat, blood and penis all command high prices. A whole body, ground down and separated into various medicines, could in total command around $50,000.

Ms Wright said she believed the true figure for the number of tigers left in India is 2,000 - "if we're extremely lucky."

"Tiger counting is a very difficult thing anyway, and for these amazing census to come out saying '30 males, 20 females and one cub' is bizarre.

"But I think there are very few parks in India that have high-density tiger populations - which is obviously the objective of all this.

"I think most of them have critically low-density populations, with the pressures and problems on these critically low populations. So I think it's very serious."

Mr Thapar said that the job of counting tigers must be taken out of the hands of the park wardens, who have, he believes, too much of a vested interest in overstating the numbers.

"Focus on protection," he added.

"Protect your park. When it's not protected, tigers die."

Rajasthan suspends tiger wardens
01 Apr 05 |  South Asia
Bengal tigers to be counted
14 Jan 04 |  South Asia
Bengal tiger census plan
31 Jul 03 |  South Asia
Pledge to save the Sundarbans
12 May 02 |  South Asia
New hope for Bengal tigers
17 Dec 01 |  South Asia


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