- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

CALCUTTA — The wildlife authority in eastern India is creating a special reserve for old tigers no longer able to hunt. The move is part of a campaign to save the endangered animal from poachers and revive India’s falling tiger population.

The reserve, to be located in part of the world’s largest mangrove forest in the Sundarbans delta, about 60 miles south of Calcutta, will serve as a rehabilitation center for sick and aging tigers from all wildlife reserves across the country. [Most of the Sundarbans, at the Mouths of the Ganges where that great river enters the Bay of Bengal, lies in Bangladesh but the western portion is in India.]

Atanu Kumar Raha, chief conservator of the Sundarbans forest, said that tigers no longer able to catch prey because of age infirmity would be relocated to the special sanctuary where they will not be exposed to poachers.

“It will be like an old-age home for the tigers. We will develop it as a natural habitat for them, so that the animals do not feel they are in captivity. This will not be a zoo or even a protected reserve,” said Mr. Raha.

India’s wild tiger population has dwindled rapidly in recent years, prompting outcries among conservationists worldwide. From an estimated 40,000 of the big cats a century ago, the population of India’s national animal has fallen to 3,700, according to an official estimate.

Conservationists say this number is inflated, and that there are no more than 2,000 tigers in India — which had 4,000, amounting to 40 percent of the world’s tiger population — until 20 years ago.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month, Willem Wijnstekers, head of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), wrote that though India is a signatory to the convention, the sluggishness with which India seems to be implementing anti-poaching measures could be seen as a lessening of its commitment to CITES.

A single tiger can fetch $40,000 on the international market. Poaching tigers for their body parts — used in Chinese traditional medicine — has brought the animal to the brink of extinction.

The federal ministry of environment and forests told India’s Supreme Court last week that of the 411 tiger deaths from 1999 to 2003, only 59 died of natural causes and 352 were killed by poachers who sold their skins and bones out of the country.

Following his visit to Ranthambhore tiger reserve this week, a concerned Mr. Singh said: “Things are not as they should be” [at most of India’s tiger reserves].

“We have a serious problem at hand. If we fail to tackle it, it will cause irreversible damage to our future. We should understand that the tiger is the central part of our habitat.”

Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said: “What we have seen is the tacit agreement between corrupt officials and the poacher. India lost its last cheetah in the 1950s, when hunting was still legal. Now, when millions are spent on conservation, we are still losing tigers. It is a national disgrace.”

Experts believe, the 110-acre rehabilitation center planned in the Sundarbans will help to stabilize the tiger population in the region.

Shahensha Jahangir, an animal rights activist in Calcutta, said the idea would lead to a successful project because the Sundarbans has one of the best tiger conservation records in the country.

“While tiger population declined in most reserves in the country, in Sundarbans it [the tiger population] has maintained a healthy shape. For the rehabilitation center, this is the best place in the country,” said Mr. Jahangir.

In 2004, a tiger census in the Indian parts of the Sundarbans found 271 of the big cats, up from 254 five years earlier.

Pradip Vyas, field director of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve said: “When a tiger grows old or gets injured and becomes unable to catch its prey in the natural habitat, it develops a tendency to enter villages in search of cattle. Then, sometimes, it gets killed by angry villagers.”

At the special rehabilitation sanctuary, beef, mutton and pork will be provided for sick and aging tigers unable to hunt, a wildlife officer said.

Mr. Raha, the chief conservator of the Sundarbans, said: “At this rehabilitation center we shall also treat the ailing and injured tigers and release them back in the wild. The project will surely help stop straying of the animals out of the forest and keep them away from human killers.”

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