NEW DELHI - Hundreds of thousands of poor people living in India's tiger reserves must be involved in conservation efforts and benefit from them if the endangered big cat is to survive, a leading environmental group said on Monday.
India is home to half the world's surviving tigers, but experts say it is losing the battle to save the big cats, citing one of the main causes as inability of the authorities to involve local people living in forest areas in conservation.
"One of the most important things that must be done is to link the local people living in reserves with tiger conservation efforts," Sunita Narain, director for the Centre of Science and Environment, told a news conference.
"The fact that we have neglected this issue is a key part of the crisis we are facing with our tigers today."
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago, but decades of poaching and depletion of their natural habitat have cut their numbers to 3,700. Some wildlife experts say the total could actually be as low as 1,200.
Experts say around 300,000 of India's poorest people live in around 1,500 villages located in its 28 tiger reserves.
Most eke out a meagre living from forest resources by cutting down trees to sell for firewood, collecting honey, picking fruit, hunting wild game and simple farming.
But many are also paid by criminal gangs to lay traps, poison water sources and electrocute tigers to meet increasing demand from neighbouring China, where skins have become status symbols in Tibet and body parts are used in traditional medicines.
Environmentalists say poor forest dwellers are paid an average of $5 for each tiger killed, while a single skin is sold on the international market for up to $20,000.
"Wildlife crimes, illegal wildlife trade and growing pressures of urbanisation and development are posing severe threats to the survival of our fauna," said Suresh Pachouri, parliamentary affairs minister at a meeting on wildlife crime.
"Our inability to effectively tackle wildlife crimes has led to the rapid depletion of wildlife species ... and India has become one of the major source countries for illegal products."
In September, India passed new legislation aimed at tackling the tiger crisis, providing for a National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCS) and a Wildlife Crime Bureau to investigate poaching and curbing the illegal trade in wildlife parts.
Speaking on the eve of the first meeting of the NTCS, which is headed by the environment minister and includes wildlife experts, Narain said hunters could become tiger guides for tourists or were hired as forest guards.
"We cannot conserve without the cooperation of people," said Narain, who headed a Tiger Task Force set up by the prime minister in 2005 to investigate the tiger crisis and suggest ways to safeguard the animal.
Story by Nita Bhalla
Story Date: 28/11/2006