Wednesday, January 18, 2006

India's tiger count to bring bad news for big cat

India's tiger count to bring bad news for big cat

Wed Jan 18, 2006 7:13 PM IST

By Kamil Zaheer

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A nationwide count of tigers underway in India, home to the largest number of the big cats in the world, is expected to show a fall in their numbers, a top government official said on Wednesday.

Thousands of forest guards spread out across 28 tiger reserves this month to undertake the census, counting pugmarks of the endangered cats as well as using camera traps and visual sightings to record tiger numbers.

The count comes after the government was slammed by environmental activists following reports last March that the entire population of up to 18 tigers in a sanctuary in western India had been killed by poachers.

"You are right. It is likely to be reduced," Additional Director-General in the Environment Ministry, R.P.S. Katwal, told Reuters when asked if the new count would show fewer tigers compared to the 2002 population of 3,642.

"Their habitat is under pressure as the population (of humans) is increasing," Katwal added.

Some environmental groups believe there are less than 2,000 tigers in India today due to rampant poaching and say the new census figures, if accurate, could show a shocking drop.

"I think we are in for deep trouble," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, referring to the latest census whose results are expected by March or April.

A mere census was not enough if the government did not act to check poaching, she said.

EMPTY PARKS

"I hope the tiger census is not being used as a smokescreen for the real problem: poaching," Wright said.

The Environment Ministry said in May that at least 114 tigers had been killed between 1999 and 2003.

Katyal said the ministry would gather all the data and analyse it to interpret it as accurately as possible.

"You can be sure we are taking all precautions," Katwal said, adding the government wanted national and international tiger experts to help analyse the data to ensure transparency.

The government which is responsible for protecting tigers in cooperation with state authorities has been under unrelenting fire after no tiger was found last year in the Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan.

The head of a tiger task force appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last year that the tiger was under siege.

"According to the information we have, at least 6 of the tigers reserves are either empty of tigers or have only two or three left," Wright said.

Scores of tourists who have visited sanctuaries in India in recent years have not sighted any tigers. A century ago, there were around 40,000 tigers in India.

A single tiger can fetch up to $50,000 in the black market, where its bones, teeth and organs are sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

http://in.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=topNews&storyID=2006-01-18T184425Z_01_NOOTR_RTRJONC_0_India-232550-1.xml

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