Ire of the tiger
Leaning out of the slowing jeep, the guide pointed to the large, rounded paw prints of a tiger on the dusty track. 'Not more than two hours old,' he said, as tourists in the back of the vehicle peered and cooed over his shoulder. But a few metres on, the cat's prints disappeared where it must have slunk off into the forest, and the jeep sped off again, in search of more clues.
Paw prints; droppings; the remains of a kill; a sudden commotion amid the trees as birds squawk, monkeys hurl themselves through branches and deer nervously scatter: the clues that a tiger may be close by are elusive, even in Ranthambore tiger reserve in Rajasthan, northern India, which is said to be one of the best places to glimpse a Bengal tiger.
This is not only because of the stealth with which tigers, which are solitary, creep through the jungle. India's wild tigers are vanishing. A century ago, there were 100,000. Today, there may be between 1,200 and 1,500. Alarmingly, this is even fewer than there were in the early 1970s, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi outlawed hunting and established Project Tiger, which today runs the country's 28 tiger reserves.
Last month, Project Tiger announced that it was enlarging some of its reserves and creating up to nine new ones. But conservationists wonder what this is likely to achieve, when even in reserves the tiger population seems to be ebbing away. Valmik Thapar, a leading conservationist, says he believes there will be no wild tigers left in India by 2015.
Bad news chases bad news in the world of tiger conservation and the recent months have been especially depressing. Conservationists have long warned that India had fewer tigers than the government claimed. But this was brought vividly home last summer when the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, where officials had boasted of having 249 tigers, was found by researchers to have only 64.
The news was especially grim because Sundarbans had been held up as a model of wildlife management and its apparent success at curbing poaching had inspired numerous documentaries and articles.
More bad news followed in December, when a law was passed granting land ownership and the right to live off forest produce to tribal people who had lived in forests for more than three generations. Human rights activists celebrated - but conservationists warned that the law would lead to damage of the tigers' habitat, which was already suffering from large development projects such as dams. But the new law would also exacerbate the greatest threat to the world's tigers: poaching, they said.
An Indian poacher who manages to shoot or poison a tiger is unlikely to earn much more than 5,000 rupees (HK$885) for his efforts, although this is still a lot of money to most Indians. But for Chinese medicine, which is the source of most of the demand for dead tigers, practically every part of the tiger is extremely valuable.
Tiger penis, which is sold as a virility saver, can fetch more than US$3,000, while teeth and claws, which are sold as cures for fevers and insomnia, are worth hundreds of US dollars per powdered kilogram.
But most valuable of all are the skins, each worth between US$10,000 and US$20,000. The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) says the Himalayan plateau has become a huge bazaar for Indian tiger skins in recent years. Organised criminal syndicates buy the skins from poachers in India and send them through Nepal into Tibetan markets and on to Chinese buyers.
But if the demand is coming from China, it is India that has earned the ire of conservationists.
'Poaching did not become criminally organised until about 1999,' said Belinda Wright, executive director of WPSI. 'But prior to that, India had shut its eyes to the problem - and by then it was too late. From 1999 onwards there were huge seizures of tiger parts, but the government failed to react.'
To this day, she says, Project Tiger has failed to combat poaching in its reserves. Forest guards are often inadequately armed and trained. Her charity gives them training, and it keeps a database - the only one of its kind in the world - about poaching crimes and poachers who have been prosecuted. But tigers in India aren't safe anywhere, she says - and that includes its most famous reserve.
Ranthambore is often described as the jewel in the crown of India's tiger parks. A landscape of ruined temples, jungles and lakes, with an 11th-century fort atop a great escarpment of red rock, it enchants modern tourists just as much as it must have pleased the maharajas of Jaipur, who kept the land as a hunting estate.
Even without bagging a tiger, tourists cannot miss the abundance of wildlife: sambar and spotted deer, langur monkeys, crocodiles and peacocks which flash among Ranthambore's huge and ancient Banyan trees like ribbons of Indian silk.
But it is the tigers the tourists come to see, in their hundreds of thousands each year. One would imagine that these visitors - and their dollars - would be reason enough to protect the tigers. There are other factors, too, which suggest that Ranthambore should be a conservation success story. The park is comparatively small and easy to patrol and there is abundant wildlife - deer, mostly - for the tigers to eat.
Unfortunately, there are also plenty of poachers, and insufficient power - or will - to stop them. Between 2004 and 2005, more than 20 tigers were poached from Ranthambore, according to Fateh Singh Rathore, a former game warden who organised a tiger shoot for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in the 1950s. Since then, he has dedicated his life to tiger conservation.
Mr Rathore said there were between 25 and 28 tigers in Ranthambore, including eight cubs. Elsewhere in the reserve, guides routinely tell tourists there are 35 tigers, including cubs.
The problem was the reserve management, he said. 'It's the simplest things: for example there are no nightly but irregular night patrols to search for poachers.' Incompetence is never punished, he said. Instead, Project Tiger employees who fail at their jobs are transferred. 'You're not going to get officers doing their jobs until they are scared of losing them,' he said.
The deputy field director of the park, Raghuvir Singh Shekhawat, said he recognised that management was the greatest challenge facing Ranthambore and other reserves. He said he also wanted to move some of the villages on the periphery of the park further away - because the movement of villagers can disturb tigers. 'We have to have more inviolable areas,' he said. 'It has to be done to save the tiger.'
But without the will of central government, management problems and the vexed issue of man's right to tiger land will not be solved. And India's tigers have not had a powerful political champion since Gandhi. The government of her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, introduced the law for tribal rights last year. The needs of voters will no doubt continue to take priority over those of India's tigers.
The theory that all Indians should be able to visit the government-funded tiger reserves, for example, has meant that the money made by such places is much lower than it might be. A seat in one of the public trucks that tours Ranthambore costs about 500 rupees, making an Indian safari much cheaper than an east African one, for example. If tigers brought in more cash, greater efforts might be made to save them.
In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a task force to monitor the work of Project Tiger and other organisations. But its recommendation that a well-funded wildlife crime bureau be established to take the burden of protection away from non-governmental organisations such as WPSI has not yet been followed. Another recommendation, that the needs of tigers and the poor farmers and tribes that share their land should be balanced, has been panned by conservationists.
India still has the best chance of saving the world's wild tigers, however. Tigers disappeared from Bali in the 1940s, from Afghanistan in the 1970s and from Java in the 1980s. The Siberian tiger, native to northern China, southern Russia and parts of North Korea, is on the brink of extinction in the wild. Experts say that only a few hundred now live outside captivity.
India, however, still has big enough populations of tigers to breed healthily and enough forest for them to live in. But this, clearly, is not enough, as conservationists at Ranthambore are growing weary of explaining.
'This reserve isn't just India's most famous tiger reserve. It's also the easiest to monitor and protect; and yet look at what is happening,' said Mr Rathore. 'The terrible thing is that if you can't conserve tigers here, you can't conserve them anywhere.'