India creates 8 new tiger santuaries

February 13, 2008 4:58:01 AM PST

It will take five years to set up the new reserves, which will cover an area of more than 11,900 square miles at a cost to taxpayers of about $153 million, the government's Tiger Project announced Tuesday. Private groups will also contribute funds.

The aim of the reserves is to protect the existing tiger population and stamp out poaching, said Rajesh Gopal, the Tiger Project secretary.

"The (government) assessment shows that though the tiger has suffered due to poaching, loss of quality habitat and loss of its prey, there is still hope," Gopal said in a statement.

New estimates suggest India's wild tiger population has dropped from nearly 3,600 five years ago to about 1,411, the Tiger Project said.

Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said the government may have overestimated the number of tigers in 2003, but that the falling numbers were still shocking.

"I think it's a very serious wake-up call," Wright told The Associated Press. The population of tigers in Asia is estimated at around 3,500 today compared to nearly 5,000 in 1997, she said.

Unless the government drastically improves enforcement steps against poachers and illegal wildlife traders, the number of tigers will continue to dwindle, she said, adding that India, Nepal and China - where demand for tiger parts is strongest - should cooperate to prevent the trade.

The Tiger Project plans to employ retired soldiers to patrol the reserves and hunt for poachers. It will also fill empty park ranger posts, establish eco-tourism guidelines to benefit local populations and speed up projects to relocate villages from inside the new tiger reserves.

Many impoverished villagers take on lucrative work for poaching gangs. Some 250 villages - an estimated 200,000 people - will be relocated under the plan, and each relocated family will be given 1 million rupees - about $25,600 - the government said.


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