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Environment

India's Tiger census reveals encouraging rise

According to India's latest tiger count, 1,706 of the big cats are thought to be roaming the wild - about 300 more than four years ago. It's a ray of hope for a species whose numbers halved in India during the 1990s.

A tiger cools off in water

Globally, there are only about 3,200 tigers left in the wild, with many in India.

The efforts of tiger conservationists and the Indian government appear to be paying off.

A tiger census published on Monday estimated that there are 1,706 members of the highly threatened species roaming free in India. That's 295 more than the last count in 2006.

However, part of the increase is also due to a more thorough counting system. This time it included areas such as the Sunderbans mangrove forest, which had not been included in the previous census.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said the figures were "a very encouraging sign", but he was also quick to warn against complacency, as tigers' habitats continue to be eroded.

According to Ramesh, tigers could roam freely within an area of about 94,000 square kilometers (36,000 square miles) four years ago. He said it was a "worrying" development that this area had now shrunk to some 73,000 square kilometers.

"The threat from poachers, international smuggling networks and powerful mining companies continue to pose a threat to the endangered animal," he added.

Two Bengal tigers

Conservationists count tigers by searching for their tracks and installing camera traps

Better head count

In 2002, officials estimated a population of about 3,700 tigers in India, although it's unclear if the estimation was accurate, Volker Homes, director of the Species Conservation Section of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told Deutsche Welle.

"The new figures are by far likelier to be closer to reality and the real tiger population size than figures before. The 2002 number of 3,700 was mainly an estimated figure, and authorities hadn't been completely honest," he said.

Despite the greater range of the latest survey, there can be no doubt that tiger's numbers are increasing in India, according to Homes.

"Even if you deduct the 70 tigers from Sunderbans, there is still a significant increase," he said. "It was alarming for India to find out its tiger population had been cut in half."

India was estimated to have at least 3,500 tigers in the 1990s, but the total dropped to 1,411 in the first-ever count carried out in 2006-07.

The Sunderbans mangrove forest on the border of India's West Bengal state and Bangladesh had previously not been included in the count as it was difficult to access.

Counting tigers isn't easy.

"Tigers are quite shy, you normally won't see them," Homes said. A combination of identifying tracks and camera traps is used to track the animals.

Tito Joseph, program director at the Wildlife Protection Society of India, also praised the increase in tiger reserves.

"In 2004 there were only 28 to 33 tiger reserves, now there are 39 reserves, so that's obviously helped."

"It's a good strategy, because tigers need space above all, and if you can create inviolate space, their numbers will naturally go up," he said.

Men stretch out tiger skin

The tiger's skin and bones are deemed valuable, making the animals vulnerable to poaching

Poaching, smuggling, loss of habitat

Yet that may not be enough, as tigers are still facing extinction.

"Poaching and smuggling and habitat loss are the greatest threats to the tiger. In the last ten years, about 1,200 tigers were killed, mainly for their bones that are still considered as some sort of medicine in East Asia," Homes said.

The trade in tiger parts is a lucrative business. Tiger skins are sold for US $11,000 to $21,000 (8,000 to 15,000 euros) in China, Rajesh Gopal, chairman of National Tiger Conservation Authority said.

That's why the 13 tiger range countries decided at a high-level summit in St. Petersburg last year to crack down on poaching. They also aim to double the number of tigers within their borders within the next 12 years.

"Worldwide, there are only about 3,200 tigers left in wildlife. The tiger really is close to extinction," Homes said. About half of the world's tiger population lives in India.

Author: Sarah Steffen (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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