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India Plans Ambitious Tiger Census

New Delhi (AFP) Jan 10, 2006
India is set to launch the most ambitious headcount yet of its dwindling tiger population, focusing especially on parks where scores of the big cats have been killed for their pelt or claws.

The national census will for the first time build a bank of photographs of the surviving tigers to help conservationists keep tabs on them in sanctuaries as well as in government-owned forests, where human settlements have mushroomed, officials said.

Around 3,500 tigers are left in the wild in India, according to government estimates, down from 40,000 before India's 1947 independence from Britain.

Activists dispute the latest figure, however, claiming it has been inflated.

Qamar Qureshi, a top environmental scientist from the state-run Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said the exercise set to begin next week would continue until March and be held in three phases.

The first stage of the survey would involve checking the health of tiger habitats spread across 17 of India's 29 states, he said.

"And then the states will go for camera-traps to gauge the density of tiger populations before following other laid-down procedures for the census," Qureshi said. These included studying tracks and droppings.

Wildlife experts use specially designed cameras which are remotely activated to photograph tigers in the wild.

"And then a special phase will begin at the tiger reserves and that will be done more intensively," said Qureshi, who has earned the nickname "Tigerman" for his conservation campaigns.

"This will get us information such as levels of density and levels of disturbance which will give us a clear idea of what is really happening on the ground," he told AFP from his headquarters in the northern town of Dehradun.

Surveillance at the protected sanctuaries would continue through 2006, he said.

"If photography is done intensively we'll know what is happening to the population," said Qureshi, who is already using satellite images, survey maps and ground patrol reports to produce a dynamic computer picture of the solitary animals and their habitats.

"The photographs will also be a sort of photo-identity cards for the marvellous carnivores," he added.

Reports of poorly-run sanctuaries prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in March last year to set up a National Wildlife Crime Prevention Bureau amid fears that many of the tigers in 27 state reserves which span 37,761 square kilometres (14,579 square miles) may have fallen victim to poachers.

A government admission two months later that poachers slaughtered 122 of the big cats between 1999 and 2003 --- a number of them in sanctuaries such as Sariska, Panna and Ranthambore, sparked off demands for sharper teeth to existing conservation laws.

Tiger bone has been used to treat rheumatism and related ailments for thousands of years in traditional Asian medicine.

Rajesh Gopal, director of a national conservation campaign called Project Tiger, said the census for the first time would invite international observers.

"Entire state machineries will be activated ... Every beat will be scanned," Gopal told AFP as provincial administrations readied thousands of forest warders and volunteers for the exercise.

"We are also inviting international observers, WII scientists as well as experts who are working with us," said the chief of the prestigious project, which was launched in 1972.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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