Losing battle to save India's tiger from poachers who sell body parts to China
Experts say more of the cats are being poached because of high value for traditional medicine
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
The increasing number of tigers being poached in India will not come down as long as the demand for tiger products in China continues, wildlife experts say.
The latest figures released last week show that India lost approximately 48 tigers last year to poachers.
"Until the demand is addressed and stopped, tigers will go on being killed by poachers. But this issue of demand is something that can only be tackled by China," said Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
According to the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority, 63 wild tigers died last year, some to accidents, illness or old age, but 48 to organised poaching gangs who sell the body parts to China where they are used in traditional medicine.
The figure for last year given by the Wildlife Protection Society of India is slightly lower at 42. But the Society says its figure is the highest in seven years.
"The prices the poachers are fetching are so high that, despite India's attempts to enforce the law, they are prepared to take risks. They are ruthless and sophisticated. We have to reduce demand," said Tito Joseph, the Society's programme manager.
The wildlife authorities appear to be in a losing battle with the poachers who are organised and well-equipped. They can easily pay off forest guards or policemen if they get into trouble.
Increasingly, the efforts to curb poaching are focusing on gathering human intelligence so that the poaching gangs can be apprehended long before they strike.
"Poachers are being monitored, their phone conversations are being tapped and the use of technical surveillance is higher than before. But they slip out of one state and cross the border into another and that makes them difficult to pursue," said Joseph.
The good news is that tigers in protected areas are doing relatively well and the breeding scenario is good. But experts say that for genes to 'flow', old and young tigers need to spread out from these protected areas into the surrounding forest areas. But when they do, they are poisoned, electrocuted or trapped by poachers.
Moreover, large development projects such as mining, power stations and dams are also taking their toll on the tiger's habitat. In the past decade, thousands of square kilometres of forest have been destroyed for such projects.
India, with 1,706 tigers according to the last official estimate three years ago, holds half the world's tiger population. This is an improvement on the 2008 figure of 1,411.
Work on the next tiger census - the world's biggest - started last month and spans 500,000 square kilometres of forest where 90 per cent of the country's tigers live. Over 2,000 experts will work with forest officials to count the tigers.