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THE TIGER, THE largest of the cats and the embodiment of feline beauty, graceful movement and power, is India's national animal. William Blake was moved to write a paen to its "fearful symmetry," and Jim Corbett's tales recreate the fear and admiration that the animal evokes. At the end of the 19th century, there may have been a 100,000 tigers worldwide; less than a century ago, they were to be found over much of Asia. Today they are an endangered species, with only around 5,000 to 7,000 left, a vast majority of them in India. Three tiger subspecies have already become extinct: the Bali in 1937, the Caspian in the 1950s, and the Javan in 1972. The South China tiger is teetering on the brink of extinction and the World Wildlife Fund warned recently that the Sumatran, the last of the Indonesian tigers, might not survive. The Indo-Chinese and Siberian subspecies too are threatened. Even in India, the last major bastion, the tiger population has fallen precipitously. In the early 20th century, there were an estimated 40,000 Bengal tigers in India. The first ever tiger census in 1972 showed that only 1,827 animals were left. The alarming decline in their population led the Central Government to launch Project Tiger in 1973. The initial nine reserves that were established covered over 13,000 sq. km., and they were later expanded to 27 reserves with an area of more than 37,000 sq. km. Official statistics put the current tiger population at between 3,600 and 4,000. But that figure is disputed by wildlife specialists who criticise the Government for continuing to rely on censuses based on the animals' pugmarks, which they say is an unreliable method for monitoring tiger populations.

More importantly, threats to the Bengal subspecies persist. A paper that has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) makes a compelling case that India's tiger population in the various reserves and sanctuaries depends crucially on the abundance of sambar, deer, gaur, wild pig and other hoofed animals on which they prey. The hunting of these prey animals by humans was the single biggest problem facing tiger conservation in the country, according to Ullas Karanth, a wildlife conservation expert and first author of the PNAS paper. Such hunting has greatly depleted the prey in 70 to 80 per cent of the habitats that could support tigers and, without this despoliation, it might be possible to have 30,000 tigers in India, he says. But the Government sees things somewhat differently. "The Bengal tiger is endangered because it is poached for its body parts to cater to an illegal market," is an assertion found on the Project Tiger website. There is also an acknowledgement that habitat loss as a result of human activity was a problem.

The World Conservation Union, IUCN, warns that the animals could disappear from many Indian reserves and that the tiger population in the country could halve as a result in a few decades. Stopping the hunting of prey species that the big cat depends on could be just as essential as preventing the poaching of tigers. But most important of all will be stemming the relentless human demands on what remains of the country's forests and wildlife reserves. That requires learning to use the rest of the land more efficiently. If the current depredation is allowed to continue, it will bring about the loss of not just the tiger, but also of much of the other wildlife and the rich plant diversity that India has been blessed with.

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