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Tiger numbers decline in India

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Poaching, economic development take a toll

October 22, 1996
Web posted at: 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT)

From New Delhi Bureau Chief Anita Pratap

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- Experts say that illegal wildlife trade ranks among the most lucrative rackets in the world -- in the range of such enterprises as narcotics and arms smuggling. The international police organization Interpol estimates the annual turnover in wildlife trade is over $6 billion.

In India, where 60 percent of the world's tigers live, tiger poaching has become a major threat.

On average, a tiger is killed every 18 hours in India, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a British non-governmental organization. The report backs up what many activists suspected.

"Within five years, India's tigers will be extinct unless immediate action is taken to prevent it," says Michael Day, founder of the watchdog organization Tiger Trust.

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In an undercover operation, Day claims to have documented the poaching of 95 Indian tigers last year. And that, he says, is only a fraction of the slaughter.

Most Indian experts agree that several hundred tigers are being poached every year -- and they believe there are only about 2,500 tigers left in the wild. Indian authorities, however, dispute that number, claiming there may be as many as 3,700.

Tigers are killed for their body parts, which are then smuggled to China and other Asian countries. Virtually every part of the tiger is used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

Day accuses the World Wide Fund (WWF) India and Indian authorities of wasting funds and failing to tackle tiger poaching head on.

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I.D. Nayar, an ex-WWF employee, charges that money intended for conservation was diverted to "wasteful expenditures" such as glitzy functions and glossy brochures. Nayar and several others recently left WWF-India.

Prominent Indian tiger experts agree that very little is being done in the field to save the tiger.

"We have to be out there in the forests," cautions Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Valmik Thapar, from the cat specialist group of the World Conservation Union, says that time is being wasted on paperwork.

"There is a lot of lip service, rhetoric and file pushing," Thapar says, "but people are not getting their feet dirty in the tiger's home."

WWF-India denies the charges, placing the blame on the Indian authorities who actually carry out anti-poaching operations. Samar Singh, secretary-general of WWF-India, says that the system designed to protect the tiger is inherently weak, and that the people who should enforce the rules "lack the will to deliver."

But while conservationists pass the buck and trade charges against one another, the trade in tiger parts flourishes -- possibly pushing the Indian tiger closer to its doom.

The report released Tuesday also said that economic expansion was threatening the tiger's livelihood as well, with development encroaching on the tiger's already shrunken habitat. The Indian government regularly grants timber and mineral companies rights to operate in and around wildlife reserves where tigers and other endangered species live, the report said.

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