CHENNAI - More than 15,000 people in southern India protested against the extension of a new tiger reserve Tuesday, despite official assurances that they will not lose their homes to the sanctuary.
Representatives from all parties in Tamil Nadu state, including the state's ruling party, took part in what is the third such protest since November against the extension of the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, police said.
The state government declared Mudumalai as a tiger reserve earlier this year as part of a federal government initiative, called "Project Tiger," to boost the country's dwindling numbers of big cats.
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago. A government census report published this year says the tiger population has fallen to 1,411, down from 3,642 in 2002, largely due to dwindling habitat and poaching.
A special panel set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in 2006 that thousands of poor villagers inside India's tiger reserves would have to be relocated to protect the endangered animals from poachers and smugglers. Some experts have put the number at around 300,000.
Poachers and smugglers exploit the grinding poverty of forest villagers to keep them on their side. Authorities have tried educating the villagers, handing out monetary incentives and drafting them as informants.
Tuesday's demonstrators were not against the declaration of a 321 sq km (125 sq mile) core area but against the creation of a buffer zone, Rajeev Srivastava, a field director for Project Tiger said.
Around 350 families living in the core area have been given a 1 million rupee ($20,800) payout, but those in the buffer areas fear they will be evicted, Srivastava said.
"We have no intention to dislodge anyone from the buffer zone. In fact, people in this zone will be involved in the project as trackers and guides for eco-tourists to enhance their means of livelihood."
The Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary is part of the larger Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve on a mountain range that spans three Indian states.
There are 48 tigers in the Nilgiri Reserve across which the tigers are free to roam, Srivastava added.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org