India Says 114 Tigers Killed by Poachers from 1999 to 2003
NEW DELHI Poachers have killed at least 114 tigers in India between 1999 and 2003, the country's environment ministry said on Wednesday, as debate raged over how to protect the endangered big cats.
The ministry's figures were made public ahead of a visit next week by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Ranthambhore tiger sanctuary in western India, where he will talk to officials for ideas on how to prevent poaching of India's national animal.
"It is a testimony to the seriousness of his concern. The prime minister is taking a direct, active interest in this issue," Sanjaya Baru, Singh's spokesman, told Reuters.
An environment ministry official told Reuters 59 tigers had died of natural causes from 1999 to 2003.
The ministry provided the figures to the Supreme Court, which is hearing a petition filed by an environmentalist for a probe by India's Central Bureau of Investigation into the status of tigers in the country's protected reserves.
The petition follows the setting up of a tiger task force by Singh after reports in March that poached may have wiped out the entire tiger population of the Sariska sanctuary where the Project Tiger conservation programme started in 1973 and where there were an estimated 16-18 big cats a year ago.
Environmental groups are alarmed about the tiger deaths in sanctuaries across the country.
"It is a matter of great concern for all of us. Together with the shrinkage of the tiger's habitat, the reduction in the numbers of the species is taking place," Worldwide Fund for Nature India chief Ravi Singh told Reuters.
In its reply to the top court on Tuesday, the environment ministry said 238 seizures of tiger skins and other body parts like nails, teeth and skin had taken place from 1999 to 2003 but added each seizure did not mean a tiger had been killed.
Environmentalists say the number of seizures shows more tigers may have been killed by poachers than the 114 confirmed deaths.
A century ago, there were roughly 40,000 tigers in India. Now official figures say there are now about 3,700 but some environmental groups say the number may be less than 2,000.
(With additional reporting by N. Ananthanarayanan)