SAWAI MADHOPUR, India—For years, Indian officials largely brushed off warnings that poachers were killing off the endangered Bengal tiger, India's national animal.
Now a shocking discovery has gotten even the prime minister's attention: At Sariska National Park, one of India's 28 tiger reserves, every tiger has disappeared.
Eighteen tigers also have been reported missing at the Ranthambhore reserve, and activists are hotly disputing the government's census of the tiger population. They say India may now be home to 1,800 tigers, the fewest since efforts to protect the tigers began more than 30 years ago.
The Indian government's last tiger census, taken in 2001-2002, placed the population at 3,600, and wildlife officials defend their record.
"It is scientifically incorrect to conclude from the acknowledged problem at Sariska that there is (a) large-scale decline of tigers in the country or that the census figures are grossly in error," the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which oversees the tiger reserves, said in a statement.
But the recent discoveries of missing tigers have alarmed officials.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit the Ranthambhore reserve next week to emphasize the importance of protecting the animals. The state government of Rajasthan, where Sariska and Ranthambhore are located, has hired more forest guards, suspended workers at Sariska and ordered a fresh count of the tiger population.
"Sariska's gotten a huge amount of media attention," said Valmik Thapar, a tiger expert whom the prime minister named to a new tiger task force. "We had never lost all the tigers in one reserve. It woke up a lot of people."
India has the largest population of tigers left in the world and has imposed strict protections for the animals since 1973, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger after a 1972 census counted only 1,827 of the animals.
India's tiger population grew in the early years of Project Tiger, but a new threat emerged in the mid-1980s: demand for tiger bones, a sought-after ingredient for traditional Chinese medicines.
With tigers in China near extinction, the illegal but highly profitable trade turned to India for a new source, said Belinda Wright, the executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. More recently, rising demand for tiger skin rugs also has fueled poaching.
Her group estimates, based on arrests and seizure of contraband tiger parts, that poaching has accounted for the deaths of 700 tigers in the last 10 years. That number doesn't include deaths caused by poachers who got away.
India doesn't have the resources of wealthier countries to combat poaching. Forest guards patrol wide expanses on foot, their only weapon a long wooden stick. Wages of $130 a month leave them susceptible to bribes.
The Central Bureau of Investigation, India's FBI, investigated Sariska and recommended the transfer of staff "who have stayed long enough or are suspected to have developed vested interests."
"There have been lapses, and poachers have been able to take advantage of that," said Vijayendra Singh, a member of parliament who heads a task force looking into tiger problems in Rajasthan state.
Attention has shifted to Ranthambhore, a popular park 260 miles south of Delhi that President Clinton visited during a presidential trip to India in 2000. Officials are undertaking a census to confirm reports that 18 tigers are missing, including a fat and friendly one the president saw, dubbed "Clinton's tiger" by the park staff.
Counting tigers is an inexact science, and activists have accused Indian park officials of inflating past tiger counts. This time, activists are taking part in the census, accompanying forest guards each morning to look for pugmarks, or tiger tracks, left in a one-inch layer of sand that workers have laid down in the park so tigers leave clear tracks.
The guards take plaster casts of the tracks and measure characteristics such as the stride, or the distance between tracks, while the activists photograph the pugmarks and use a handheld global positioning system to record the exact location. The data will be run though a computer program to determine the number of unique tracks.
As a further check, the government-funded Wildlife Institute of India has mounted 10 cameras throughout the park to capture tigers on film and identify them by their markings.
The count is an unofficial prelude to a nationwide census, held every four years, scheduled for November to February.
Activists hope that the recent uproar over Sariska will pressure states and the central government to beef up tiger protection. Already, Rajasthan has filled 28 long-vacant forest guard positions at Ranthambhore and assigned 100 police guards and 50 armed constables to the park.
"We've reached a point where a crisis has started," said P.K. Sen, a former director of Project Tiger who now heads the tiger program at WWF-India, the Indian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. "If we don't check it, the tiger's future is in peril."
(Moritsugu is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): INDIA-TIGERS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050413 India tigers
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