In 1900 there were an estimated 45,000 tigers living in the wild in India’s many forests. By 1972, the year in which poaching was officially outlawed, tiger numbers had dwindled to 2,000.
Today the Indian government claims that 1,411 tigers are still alive but this is a highly contentious figure. The real figure is likely to be closer to 750 and the race is on to save the Indian tigers from extinction. In fact, the situation has deteriorated to such as extent that tigers were actually placed on WWF’s 10 Most Threatened Species in 2010 list.
The situation is increasingly desperate, as Director of WWF Scotland, Dr Richard Dixon, says:
“We have a window of opportunity in which to step up and pull back some of the world’s most splendid animals from the brink of extinction. We urge everyone who wants to live in a world with tigers, polar bears, and pandas to make it their New Year’s resolution to help save these amazing and threatened species before it’s too late.”
One of the major problems facing tigers is the value of their skin, as just across India’s border in China a tiger skin can fetch as much as $20,000. As tigers continue to decline in numbers this value is only going to rise, further increasing the potential rewards of poaching.
Speaking to Dharmendra Khandal, who works for Tiger Watch, a privately funded organization trying to prevent and track down poachers, he mentions how they utilise paid informants to try to gain an upper–hand over the poachers:
“It’s a risky job. We have four regular paid informants from this community and we give them money in return for information. The community knows who the informants are. Some of them are resisting but there are cracks in the society now. Some of them are asking why they should live in such a primitive state.”
Although on the surface it might appear to be a losing battle against the poachers some real progress has been made. Tiger Watch also works extensively with the local communities and its work is starting to pay off, as Sanwali Kesra, the wife of a former poacher, illustrates:
“We are not willing to live in an atmosphere where the police are always coming after us. We had to move from here to there. Our forefathers were involved in poaching, but we don’t want to be involved in this trade any more.”
This view is shared by members throughout the local community, such as Asanti, a 26 year old from a family of poachers:
“We want our children to be educated. We want to learn more. We want a regular source of income. Hunting is not a regular source of income. Times have changed and our community is scattered. Now we want to live respectably.”
While the fight against poachers is gradually turning in the direction of conservationists, there are also major concerns over deforestation.
Aditya Singh, a conservationist and tiger expert, believes that the final straw for India’s tigers could be the destruction of the remaining corridors of forest that link the different nature reserves and parks together.
“There are still connections between the reserves, but in five years they won’t be there. I think the tigers have five years. They will stay in isolated pockets, but they will have reached an evolutionary dead end.”
Unless something can be done soon then India’s tigers will be gone forever. You can read more about the situation facing the Indian tigers over at the Guardian.