March 13, 2006
India Takes on Poachers in Key Tiger Reserve
By Bappa Majumdar
CANNING, India -- Authorities in eastern India have arrested 30 poachers in the world's largest tiger reserve this year against 40 caught in 2004 and 2005, officials said on Monday.
They said the sharp jump in arrests in the first nine weeks of 2006 were largely the result of border troops joining wildlife personnel in tackling poachers in the Sunderbans, a vast mangrove forest home to scores of Royal Bengal tigers.
"Joint patrolling and vigilance between us and the Border Security Force has added muscle to the anti-poaching efforts," Pradeep Vyas, director of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, said in Canning, the closest large town to the reserve.
India's Border Security Force (BSF) troops are working with authorities in West Bengal state and patrolling the sparsely populated Sunderbans -- criss-crossed by hundreds of channels -- by boat and on foot.
BSF troops have joined wildlife guards in five camps in the Sunderbans to boost the anti-poaching drive, including on a mangrove forest island where the Bay of Bengal meets the reserve's outer fringes, Vyas said.
A single tiger can fetch up $50,000 on the black market, where its organs and bones are sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
India has stepped up protection across its 28 tiger reserves after the federal government was slammed following reports poachers had killed the entire tiger population of up to 18 tigers in the Sariska reserve in western India.
Tigers experts said the situation could be similar in other sanctuaries.
A century ago, there were about 40,000 big cats in India but now officials estimate there are at most 3,600. Environmental groups say the figure could be as low as 2,000.
The last census in 2003 estimated there were between 260 and 280 tigers in the Indian part of the Sunderbans.
The marshy region, part of which extends into neighboring Bangladesh, is also home to salt-water crocodiles and rare river dolphins and covers 350 sq km (135 sq miles).
West Bengal officials say poachers are a major threat to wildlife guards and there have been frequent gunbattles.
"They are armed and do not hesitate to exchange fire with our men," Vyas said.
The nature of the land also makes it easy for poachers to operate.
"They hide in creeks and sneak into the core (sanctuary) area under cover of darkness," said S.R. Banerjee, the director of global nature conservation body, WWF, in West Bengal.