Monday, July 24, 2006

CALCUTTA — A study has found that the last stronghold of the Bengal tiger has less than one quarter the number of big cats previously reported, shocking wildlife conservationists who now suspect they have been duped by park officials.

The Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in West Bengal had been held up as a model of wildlife management. Officials boasted a population of 249 tigers after a detailed count in 2004 using computer analysis of “pug marks,” or footprints, found in the park.

The British Broadcasting Corp., National Geographic Society and Discovery Channel all made documentaries about the park’s success in protecting tigers from the rampant poaching that plagues other national parks in India. Articles appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian and the Sunday Times of London, as well as The Washington Times.

But researchers from Calcutta’s esteemed Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) say a re-examination of the same data shows only about 64 tigers in the park.

Conservationists had expressed doubts that the tigers were as safe in the park’s forests as its management claimed. Noting that tiger numbers were plummeting in other reserves, they pressured West Bengal wildlife authorities for the review of the data.

Authorities agreed, and molds of the pug marks were sent to the ISI. After studying the marks, researchers said the park held no more than 64 tigers.

Valmik Thapar, a member of a Tiger Task Force established by the prime minister to monitor conservation efforts, said the lower figure did not surprise him.

“We believe poaching of tigers has been going on in Sundarbans for one or two decades, and for many years we have been saying we did not trust the figure regularly presented” by the reserve’s managers, Mr. Thapar said. “To earn praise for their work and to save their skin, the wardens have been presenting inflated numbers.”

The beleaguered park management is sticking to its estimate, saying the ISI’s analysis was inaccurate. Pradip Vyas, the tiger reserve’s director, called the ISI figure “totally unacceptable.”

“The software they used in analyzing the data we provided was not that efficient,” Mr. Vyas said. “We think it could not differentiate between various pug marks and threw up an erratic figure.”

But the institute says the software it used was reliable within five percentage points.

Shahanshah Jehangir, a conservationist in Calcutta, said he was outraged by the findings.

“Reserve officials always explained to us how they protected the tigers with exemplary levels of security,” he said. “Documentaries were made on how the park succeeded in protecting the animals by rehabilitating former poachers, and we always admired the efficiency of the wardens.

“But now, as an authentic organization like ISI says that the actual count is 185 less than the official count, we are shocked. It means they were telling lies for a long time. It amounts to a criminal offense when the animals involved are as endangered as tigers.”

Mahendra Shrestha, director of Save the Tigers Fund, a nonprofit group based in Washington, said the Sundarbans scandal exposed a problem that exists “all over India.”

“The groups that are supposed to monitor and protect the tigers simply do not have the capacity to patrol the area and control poaching,” he said.

“So to keep from being seen as nonperformers, they kept the numbers high. They made up lots of excuses when questions were asked, saying some of the tigers had probably just gone up to the mountains or went to look for water.”

Conservationists have long argued that India has far fewer tigers than the government claims. An official count shows 3,600 tigers in India, down from 40,000 of the animals 60 years ago, but conservationists think the present figure could be as low as 1,200.

“The government figure of 3,600 is grossly inflated,” Mr. Thapar said. “In the last 10 years, 1,500 tigers have been poached, and every year 150 of them are vanishing.

“Tigers cannot sustain the present rate of poaching, and by 2015, there will not be a tiger left in the wild in India.”

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