MADRAS, India — The future of the Indian tiger, the country’s pride and national animal, does not look bright. It is being butchered not just in the darkness of the night but also in broad daylight.

Overnight, 26 tigers in the Sariska Project Tiger Reserve in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan seem to have vanished. A worried Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has urgently called for a probe into this mystery.

In Sariska, no tiger has been spotted for the past six months, and the World Wildlife Fund-India has said most of the 26 tigers that were counted in the last census could have been lost. An intense search recently confirmed the WWF’s statement.

The other day a gang of poachers who had been arrested confessed to having killed 10 tigers in Sariska.

In Rajasthan’s other Project Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore, it is feared that no more than 12 tigers remain compared with the official figure of 35 to 47.

Although officers of Project Tiger, a conservation program introduced in 1972 to save India’s dwindling tiger population, give a host of reasons for the disappearance of almost the entire pride in Sariska, the causes are well known, though seldom admitted in the higher echelons of the nation’s administration.

Sariska houses up to 23 villages within the reserve and 198 on its fringes. This leads to pressure against tigers due to public concern over grazing cattle, which enable villagers to eke out a livelihood, and from human habitation itself with its constant noise and movement. Also, of late, there has been enormous construction activity: Several holiday resorts are going up. So some of the tigers could have been driven away.

In Ranthambore, two dozen hotels have been built well within the core area of the Project Tiger Reserve, posing a potential threat from tourists.

The legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett — who lived in India and gave his name to the Indo-Chinese subspecies and to the renowned Corbett National Park — warned the British viceroy to India in 1946 that about 3,000 to 4,000 tigers were left and that even these would pass into history. These words now seem prophetic.

India’s tiger population continued to decline at an alarming rate till 1972, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banned hunting of the animal, introduced a wildlife act and set up Project Tiger under the WWF. Several forest reserves were dedicated to Project Tiger, and in what was considered a remarkable conservation effort, India’s tiger population soon passed 4,000.

Project Tiger certainly stopped poaching, but it angered poor people who lived within and just outside the reserves and who depended on forest land for their meager existence. In the face of what they considered inadequate compensation from the government, these forest dwellers not only began poisoning tigers each time a head of cattle was killed by tigers — whose population brought it into dangerous conflict with man — but also started helping poachers in return for money.

The trade in tiger parts grew enormously in China and other countries of Asia. As the blind belief in the curative powers of animal organs for various ailments, including sexual impotency, grew, the craze for tiger penis soup or tiger bone broth swung up.

Added to this was the gross inadequacy of the guards appointed to save the tiger in the Indian reserves. Ill-paid and ill-equipped, often with just a stick, these men were no match for poachers, who used sophisticated vehicles and weapons to carry out their deadly mission. They sported night glasses and had long-range binoculars. With the large amount of money they earned selling tiger parts, including the skin, they merrily bribed villagers and guards to keep their support.

Project Tiger officials found what must have seemed like an easy way to sort out the problem: Instead of addressing the core issue and providing realistic compensation or workplaces for villagers and firearms for guards, they produced inflated tiger census statistics and fooled the world into believing utter lies.

Even when international wildlife specialists repeatedly pointed out that a tiger a day was being killed in the Project Tiger reserves, the Indian government chose to ignore the warnings.

Today, India faces the embarrassment of an uncomfortable truth. If one does not even know the actual number of tigers left in India’s wilds — some estimates place the figure at fewer than 2,000 (although the 2002 census estimates about 3,600) — there is no way one can hide the great Indian tiger disappearance at Sariska. The world is watching a great conservation effort slide into a dark pit. A few body parts of a majestic creature underline a national disgrace.

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