Tigers have almost disappeared from yet another protected reserve in India, with numbers dropping drastically according to conservationists involved in a new count of the big cats.
Wildlife activists say the number of endangered animals in Buxa Tiger Reserve in northeastern India could be five times lower than the 31 estimated in the last census in 2001/02.
"We found evidence of only six tigers during the survey," said Amal Dutta, chairman of the Alipurduar Nature Club, a local conservation group that helped the state-run Wildlife Institute of India (WII) count the big cats in Buxa last year.
Conservationists attribute the tiger disappearances in Buxa mainly to poaching, saying they mirrored the situation in India's popular Sariska Tiger Reserve, where the nation was shocked to discover the entire tiger population had been wiped out in 2005.
But forest authorities in Buxa said the tigers could have moved across the border into Bhutan due to increasing human encroachment in the reserve and incessant habitat destruction.
"We share a long border with Bhutan, so anything is possible and we have to wait for the WII results to know the tiger's fate," L.G. Lepcha, Buxa's field director, said recently.
India is home to half the world's surviving tigers, but conservationists say it is losing the battle to save them.
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago.
A count conducted in 2001 and 2002 suggested that number had fallen to around 3,700, after decades of poaching and habitat destruction.
The latest figures, gleaned using more modern methodology but only covering part of the country, show the situation could be far worse based on findings from 16 of India's 28 reserves last month.
The results of the remaining -- which include Buxa -- are expected by the end of the year.
Over the years, large human populations and their thousands of cattle have taken over much of Buxa's almost 120 sq. km (45 sq. miles) area, tucked between Bhutan's Sinchula hill range and India's tea- and oil-rich Assam state.
Vast tracts of forests have been destroyed by the more than 20,000 people living in Buxa, mainly for firewood and to make way for farming and grazing pastures for their estimated 140,000 cattle.
Wildlife experts add that villagers are often paid by poachers to lay traps, adding that the virtually porous border makes it easy to smuggle tiger skins and bones into Bhutan and sell them on the black market for lucrative prices.