A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study published in July reported that wild tigers have lost 40% of their habitat worldwide in the last decade and live in only 7% of their historic range.

The study, carried out by scientists of the New York Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Washington-based Smithsonian Zoological Park, warned that the tiger may become ecologically extinct in the next 20 years.

In India, home to more than half the world's wild tiger population, their population fell from 100,000 in the 19th century to 3642 in 2002.

With over 37,000sq km of forest dedicated to tiger conservation, India is seen as the most primed to save the animal from extinction.

Onkuri Majumdar of the NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India (WSPI) told Aljazeera.net: "Out of all the tiger ranges in the world, India is the only one that has a population of more than 500 wild tigers. If the tiger is to survive in the wild its best chance of doing so is in India."

But she warned that protection efforts against "organised poaching gangs and loss of habitat to growing human population", are a cause for alarm.

Killed for medicines

Tigers are killed for their skin and other body parts including bones and teeth used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicines. According to independent estimates, 10 grams of tiger bone powder sells for up to $4000.

Hoping to stem the tide of illegal poaching and the animal trade, India set up the Project Tiger conservation programme in 1971.

Tigers may become ecologically
extinct in the next 20 years

But the programme, which oversees the country's 28 sanctuaries, has been plagued by corruption and mismanagement.

In Sariska in north-west state of Rajasthan there were 24 tigers in 1997 but 18 were killed by poachers in a single year while the sanctuary's administration fudged records to show an increase from 24 to 26.

The Sariska massacres last year outraged conservationists but did no steps were taken to combat the poaching cycle.

Another 43 tigers were killed in the rest of the country in 2005 and 10 in the first half of this year alone, according to WPSI. 

Combat poaching

A Tiger Task Force set up by the federal government after the Sariska killings suggested stringent measures to combat poaching including the setting up of a wildlife crime bureau that would enable speedy trial and conviction of criminals.

The report also called for expanding the tiger-roaming range by minimising human pressure in the area and repairing human-tiger relationships by building strategies for coexistence.

"The action agenda is comprehensive but within reach," said the task force, while cautioning that "there is no quick fix to tiger protection".

Survival in peril

Tiger is central to human survival: each big cat requires 20sq km of forest range with adequate tiger prey.

In conservation language, each tiger saved means 20sq km forest saved as well. 

Excessive hunting wiped out wild tigers in most of the world during the past century and their present population worldwide is estimated at a maximum of 7,000.

Majumdar told Aljazeera.net: "The survival of the tiger depends upon legislative and executive will to battle poaching and to protect habitat against unplanned development."
 
The tiger reserves are also understaffed and the forest guards largely untrained.

Forest guards who have the most crucial role in saving the tiger, present a "pathetic picture", said Mohammad Aslam Warisi, wildlife photographer who runs a website Tigerbyaslam.com and often travels to tiger reserves.
 
"The killers attack with sophisticated weapons whereas the poor, malnourished guards rely on useless old rifles and primitive weapons like knives and swords."

Miltary operation?

Aslam said the best way to save the tiger is to run Project Tiger like a "military operation".

"The forest guards are soldiers of the highest order, fighting to defend Nature, and should be treated in keeping with their status."
 
The government seems to be leaning towards just that.

The federal environment ministry and the Indian army are preparing to crack down on poachers and the illegal wildlife trafficking.

Part of the plan is to set up a Sanctuary Task Force comprising ex-soldiers.

The Indian army also plans to increase its four eco-battalions helping in conservation in as many states.

Such measures are likely to prove much more effective as the army's reach in far-flung areas is much better than that of the civil administration, and it recently conducted the first ever habitat survey at Siachen glacier in Jammu and Kashmir bordering Pakistan.
 
World hunts poachers

The effort has also seen cross-border and international strategies drawn up to protect the tiger and its habitat, and prosecute those behind the illegal poaching trade.

In June, India signed an agreement with China to check wildlife trafficking across the border.

And during the visit in February by George Bush, the US president, the country became a member of the US-led Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking or CAWT.

Launched in September 2005, CAWT focuses political and public attention on growing threats to wildlife from poaching and illegal trade.

The Indian government is also expected to conduct a new tiger census involving international observers.

"The survey is a monumental effort of national and international importance for the conservation of [the] tiger, their prey and other carnivores," said Christopher Carbone of Zoological Society of London in his report.

Recently, Project Tiger also concluded a four-year-long study on tiger habitats that will help it focus on these areas and identify crucial links in saving the tiger.

Amend the laws

But conservation and protection of wildlife require strong backing from the authorities and state law.

India's conservation lobby is waiting for the Indian parliament to amend the wildlife protection law to set up a crime bureau that will involve a coalition of environment and security agencies and crack down on wildlife crimes.

Another bill to protect the rights of human tribes in and around the tiger reserves, the lobby hopes, would not encroach upon the precious and depleting habitat.

Tigers and humans will live and die together, say conservationists, and it is up to the Indian government face up to this hard reality.