July 18, 2005

Tiger Numbers Drop in India’s Showcase Reserve

NEW DELHI -- India reported a dramatic fall in the tiger population at one of its showcase reserves on Monday and conservationists said poachers were to blame.

Numbers of the endangered big cats in the Ranthambhore sanctuary in the western desert state of Rajasthan fell to 26 from 47 in 2004, but authorities said the numbers could be lower because of a faulty headcount in the last census.

"Tiger numbers at Ranthambhore have fallen and it's because of poaching and unscientific counting methods adopted earlier," said Valmik Thapar, a member of a government committee assessing the tiger population in Rajasthan.

There was uproar in India after reports in March that the entire tiger population at the Sariska forest sanctuary near Ranthambhore had been wiped out by poachers, with fears that the situation might be mirrored in other reserves across the country.

There were 16-18 tigers at Sariska a year ago.

Officials said the latest census of tigers in Ranthambhore -- carried out in May and June -- used cutting-edge technology such as camera traps and digital pugmark technology for the first time in South Asia.

"This is the first time that such reliable estimates have been established," said V.P. Singh, chairman of Rajasthan's wildlife committee.

Official tiger numbers have always been rejected by conservationists who say the system of counting the big cat using pugmarks is faulty and prone to duplication.

In April, the Indian environment ministry said poachers had killed at least 114 tigers between 1999 and 2003 and another 59 tigers had died of natural causes during that period.

A century ago, there were some 40,000 tigers in India. Now, officials estimate there are about 3,700 although some environment groups put the number at fewer than 2,000.

Trade in dead tigers is illegal but poachers still operate with impunity because a single animal can fetch up to $50,000 in the international market.

Organs, teeth, bones and penises fetch high prices in the black market, where they are used in Chinese medicine.