(May 23, 2007)

Fewer tigers in India than previously thought

By Nita Bhalla
From Reuters

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Early results from a tiger census in India indicate the population of the endangered big cats is drastically lower than previously assumed, wildlife experts and conservationists said on Wednesday.

Experts from the government-run Wildlife Institute of India (WII) presented initial results of a new count of tigers in 16 of India's 28 tiger reserves and their surrounding areas.

The WII, which has been monitoring tiger populations across India for the past two years, did not give a new estimated national total for tigers but said habitat destruction and human encroachment were leading to declining numbers.

"In general, the situation is not good," Y.V. Jhala from the WII said after a presentation of population estimates from around 16 of India's 28 tiger reserves and their surrounding areas.

"The tiger reserves are doing much better than what we expected but the outside areas have lost most of the tigers," he said, adding that 60 percent of India's population of tigers was believed to be outside the reserves.

India has half the world's surviving tigers, but conservationists say the country is losing the battle to save the big cats. There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago, but decades of poaching had cut their number to about 3,700, according to a count conducted in 2001 and 2002.

Conservationists said they believed the new census results suggested there was a decline of 65 percent in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which has one of the largest populations of tigers in India.

"The indications are that all over India, it will be the same," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

"We appear to have only two healthy reserves from the 16 presented today -- it's a serious wake-up call and I hope it will shock and jolt state governments into taking action to save our tigers."

Earlier tiger counts had been done solely by spotting their pugmarks (tracks) but conservationists said that method was faulty, mainly due to varying soil and weather conditions.

The new method involves actual tiger sightings using camera traps, as well as pugmarks and feces.

Jhala said while there was good protection for tigers inside reserves and national parks, the outer areas needed to be equally well-protected as tigers often move into buffer areas.

"The tiger reserves and national parks are too small to have a population which can survive on its own for the long term," he said.

WII experts said effective tiger conservation would only become a reality if reserves are connected to one another so tigers have a larger population and area to breed and hunt.

"The human population, where we add one Australia every year to the country, and demand for natural resources going higher by the day, (mean) a large carnivore living in your neighborhood is not possible," said Jhala.

The WII said full national figures would be released at the end of the year.

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