The number of wild tigers in India has dwindled to little more than 1,400, less than half the previous estimate, in an alarming decline blamed by wildlife experts on poaching and urbanization.
The last major survey, in 2002, recorded 3,642 tigers. Until this census, India was thought to be home to 40% of the world’s tigers, with 23 tiger reserves in 17 states.
Rajesh Gopal, of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, said: "The tiger has suffered due to direct poaching, loss of quality habitat, and loss of its prey."
The government authority said its monitoring methods had changed; it now relied on cameras rather than pug mark (footprint) counts. But it is clear that tiger numbers have dropped. Some reserves, such as Sariska in Rajasthan, have been cleared by poachers. Others, such as Bandhavgarh in Madya Pradesh, have seen sharp drops due to encroachment on the forest. The only exception has been Tamil Nadu, where the numbers have risen to 76 from 60 five years ago.
A century ago India had a population of more than 40,000 tigers.
Valmik Thapar, a leading campaigner, said it was now "time to act and save tigers from human beings", adding: "We have to create inviolate areas for tigers and provide modern weapons to forest guards."
Experts have said not enough is being done to crack down on poachers and the illegal trade in tiger skins. Tigers are killed for their body parts, with their skins prized for fashion reasons and bones used in medicines. Pelts are sold for more than £8,000 apiece in China.
To stop the trade, the Wildlife Protection Society of India has called for cooperation between India, Nepal and China, where demand for tiger body parts is strongest. Last year the society successfully lobbied the Dalai Lama to urge Tibetans not to wear tiger fur.
The Indian government, attacked by conservationists for "overseeing" the cats’ demise, said it would now create eight new tiger reserves. Under the plan, about 250 villages, probably accounting for 200,000 people, would be relocated, with each family given 1m rupees (about £12,500). But this would take five years to set up, at a cost to taxpayers of about £80m.
Laws to protect the Sumatran tiger are not preventing cat body parts being sold openly in Indonesia, said a report released yesterday. Teeth, claws, skin, whiskers and bones were on sale in one in 10 of the 326 retail outlets in 28 cities and towns across Sumatra surveyed during 2006 by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitors.
Its report, The Tiger Trade Revisited in Sumatra, found tiger parts being sold by goldsmiths and in souvenir and traditional medicine shops. Trade was concentrated in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, and nearby Pancur Batu.