Armed with radio collars and high-tech cameras, hundreds of wildlife experts fanned out across a vast mangrove in India’s east on Thursday as part of the world’s largest census of the endangered tiger.
Alarmed by reports of large-scale poaching in India’s famed tiger sanctuaries, about 250 officials used speedboats or walked through muddy creeks and marshland looking for tell-tale footprints, or pugmarks, in West Bengal’s Sunderbans, the world’s largest natural tiger habitat.
“This census is the world’s biggest and the most scientific to date,” Pradeep Vyas, the census chief, told Reuters from the Sunderbans, a 3,900-square-mile, sparsely populated mangrove marshland.
Conservationists, who have been highly critical of India’s efforts to protect the tiger, have also expressed reservations over the accuracy of the pugmark system, saying the method has in the past masked the big cats’ dwindling numbers in the country’s national parks.
In March, the Indian government was criticized after reports said the entire tiger population of up to 18 animals at the Sariska tiger reserve, one of the nation’s most prized reserves, had been killed by poachers and that numbers across the country had fallen rapidly.
In response, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formed a special taskforce to suggest ways of saving the big cats.
Higher tech census
For the first time, the latest tiger census will use specially designed computer programs, camera traps and radio-collars tracked by satellite to avoid any duplication in recording pugmarks.
The last census in 2003 estimated there were between 260 and 280 tigers in the Indian part of the Sunderbans, home also to hundreds of saltwater crocodiles and rare river dolphins.
Vyas said the first phase of the latest census would end on Jan. 10, during which experts would also try to study the food the health of the forest and the prey base of the tiger.
From 40,000 to under 3,700
A century ago, there were about 40,000 tigers in India but now officials estimate there are at most 3,700.
Some environmental groups say the number could be as low as 2,000. Trade in tiger parts is illegal but poachers still operate with impunity, driven by the huge rewards.
A single tiger can fetch up to $50,000 on the black market, where its organs and bones are sold for use in increasingly popular traditional Chinese medicine.