Fri May 6, 2005
NEW DELHI (AFP) - A federal probe into disappearing tigers in a state-protected reserve has found the entire population of big cats has been wiped out by poachers.
"The special investigation team in its preliminary assessment report has indicated that there was no evidence to prove the presence of tigers in Sariska (national park)," junior Forest Minister Namo Narain Meena said Friday.
"The entire population seemed to have become extinct primarily because of poaching," Meena told parliament's upper house.
The reserve covers 800 square kilometers (320 square miles) in Rajasthan state and has blue bulls, spotted deer, boar, and above all, 15 tigers, according to a census in June 2004
Media reports that since January none of the tigers had been spotted sparked the probe.
Meena said the Central Investigation Bureau (CBI) team noted that since July 2002 at least three "organised networks of poachers" were slaughtering tigers and leopards in Sariska.
The announcement came almost two months after Prime Minister Manmohan set up a national wildlife crime prevention bureau to implement steps to keep poachers out of India's 27 tiger reserves which span 37,761 square kilometres (14,579 square miles).
Conservationists, who have labelled the poaching in Sariska a "bloodbath", warn that similar killings have also occurred in other reserves such as Rajaji National Park in the state of Uttaranchal and at Kanah in Madhya Pradesh.
Minister Meena said a five-member taskforce, which was also set up in March by Singh to develop strategies to protect tigers, was to hand in final recommendations by July-end.
The taskforce in its early recommendations has said the CBI should conduct an extensive search of all villages within the 27 tiger reserves and carry out an administrative overhaul of the Sariska reserve, he said.
Sariska is part of a nationwide conservation drive known as Project Tiger, launched in 1973 and aimed at reversing a massive decline in India's tiger population. The number of reserves under the programme has grown from nine in the mid-1970s to 23 today.
There are 3,500 to 3,700 Indian tigers left, according to official estimates which are increasingly in dispute, against 40,000 tigers before India's independence from Britain in 1947.
Around 8,000 leopards and other large carnivores are officially listed in 592 state-protected forests.
Tiger hunting is illegal worldwide and the trade in tiger skins, claws or other products is banned under a treaty system bringing together 167 countries including India.