NEW DELHI (AFP) - - India's rare Royal Bengal Tiger population has plunged to 1,411, drastically lower than the estimated 3,700 believed to exist five years ago, researchers said Tuesday.
Rajesh Gopal, who heads Project Tiger, a conservation programme launched in the 1970s, unveiled the latest figures and blamed "poaching, loss of quality habitat and prey" as the main reasons for the decimation.
The census, which took nearly two years to complete, counted the big cat population inside dedicated reserves and those in forests, Qamar Qureshi, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India which conducted the survey, told AFP.
An earlier survey in 2002 had estimated the number of tigers in India at 3,700, with the population of those in protected sanctuaries estimated at 1,500.
Conservationists have long complained that many Indian forestry posts lie vacant, while the staff that do exist have little in the way of funds, making them no match for poachers.
"This is disastrous news but comes as no surprise," said Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Wildlife crime is so entrenched and we are not prepared for it."
Poachers killed 122 tigers between 1999 and 2003, the government said in 2005.
Alarmed by the dwindling numbers, the government last year announced it was recruiting retired army personnel to form a "tiger protection force" to guard sanctuaries.
Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a national wildlife crime prevention bureau -- drawing experts from the police, environmental agencies and customs -- in a bid to break up the poaching network.
Asian giants India and China have been under fire from international experts for failing to halt tiger poaching, with conservationists blaming collusion between poachers, government officials and buyers.
Tigers are hunted for their pelts, claws and bones, which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
Tiger hunting is illegal worldwide and the trade in tiger body parts is banned under a treaty binding 167 countries, including India.
Despite the population plunge, Gopal and Qureshi said there was still hope for saving the tiger and salvaging the Project Tiger programme, touted as one of India's most successful conservation efforts.
"There is a lot of hope. The tiger population is capable of bouncing back if the quality of the forests is preserved and there is enough prey," Qureshi said.
Conservation efforts will work if people living near tiger reserves are involved in the process, he added.
The results of the latest survey offers authentic data as it used "more detailed and scientifically sound" techniques than earlier ones based on paw tracks, Qureshi said.
"When you say about 3,700 tigers in 2002, that was just an estimate. So it is difficult to say whether the numbers have halved or not."
The latest numbers however "does not include the tigers in the Sundarbans," the world's largest mangrove forest straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border.
"We are still developing the methodology to count the tigers there, because of the difference in habitats," he said.
Qureshi declined to give an estimate of the number of tigers living in the mangrove forests, though some conservationists have put it at no more than 70.
Noel Boyd says: This is downright sad!! It won't take long before they say that the last tiger has been killed. For years, people have been trying to educate these idiots about conserving their wildlife. Telling them that poaching is doing more harm than they think. Oh well, that's what we get for living among idiots!