By KS Shaini
BBC News, Bhopal
India's most important tiger centre is under threat.
Poaching for tiger skin is rampant
Rampant poaching is the biggest threat to the future of the big cats in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
With 712 tigers in nine national parks and 25 wildlife sanctuaries, Madhya Pradesh is home to the largest tiger population in the country.
There has been recent concern over tigers disappearing at an alarming rate from the Sariska reserve in western Rajasthan state.
But two major seizures by the police in Madhya Pradesh last month point to the growing menace of poaching in the state.
On 8 April, the police arrested a man from the Betul district of Madhya Pradesh who had admitted to killing as many as 30 big cats - tigers and panthers - over the past two years, an official said.
In another operation, provoked by reports of missing tigers in the Panna national park, the police recovered equipment - iron snares and electric wires - used for catching tigers.
Between 1998 and 2004, remains, including skins, of 28 tigers were recovered from 12 districts in the state, wildlife officials said.
"The poaching threat is very high," admits the state's principal conservator of forests (wildlife), PB Gangopadhaya.
The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) says a majority of the remains from 719 tigers and 2,474 leopards poached in India between 1994 and 2004 were from Madhya Pradesh.
Madhya Pradesh is home to a fourth of India's tiger population
Things have become so bad that last month, WPSI announced that not a single tiger had been sighted in the Panna national park - home to 34 tigers in official records - for the last two years.
Wildlife biologist Raghu Chudawat estimates "not more than eight to 10 tigers" are left in Panna.
He says that at least 13 tigers with radio devices attached to collars in the park and being monitored by his team had gone missing recently.
A report by a panel of experts appointed by India's Supreme Court has also admitted that the sighting of tigers "continued to be difficult" in Panna, and the tiger population in the park had "crashed, probably due to poaching".
Rattled by these reports, the state government has launched a second count of tigers in the Panna park after independent wildlife officials dismissed an initial count which showed no decline in its tiger population.
Officials say that the poachers usually poison tiger food or electrocute them.
The cats are mainly killed when they stray out of the high-security park boundaries.
A former senior forest officer, SB Lavlekar, is sceptical about what he describes as a "hue and cry" by independent wildlife NGOs over declining tiger numbers in the state's parks.
A leopard killed by poachers
"Yes, tigers are being poached, but tigers are also being born. Also tigers have a tendency to shift their base. They have migrated from some of their homes, and that is why they are missing there," he says.
Mr Lavlekar claims that tigers are now being sighted in areas like Morena and Dindori, where they were never seen before.
Wildlife officials say tiger remains are mostly in demand in China and east Asian countries - tiger bones, for example, are used in traditional medicine.
"Earlier, only tiger bones were in demand. Now the skin, claws, nails - everything fetches a good price," says Raghu Chudawat, a wildlife biologist.
For the moment, wildlife officials in Madhya Pradesh say that they have stepped up patrolling and monitoring the ponds where the tigers go for their water.
"But nothing is foolproof," admits a senior official.
The fresh official count might now throw up some clues about how foolproof the security in the tiger habitat is.