Two arrested with dozens of animal skins

April 16, 2008 5:12:05 AM PDT

Acting on a tip, police recovered 22 skins from the baggage of a retired Indian army soldier and a civilian accomplice on Monday in Pratapgarh, a town 95 miles southeast of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state, said A. P. Sinha, a district forest official.

Uttar Pradesh state borders Nepal and is often used as a transit point by smugglers.

Tigers, pythons and clouded leopards are considered endangered and are protected under the Indian Wildlife Act. If convicted, the two suspected smugglers can be jailed for up to 10 years.

Sinha said the skins appeared to be of young animals and the python skins were almost 10-feet long.

Police were investigating the suspects' contacts in the Indian portion of Kashmir from where they had brought the skins, he said.

New estimates by the government-run Tiger Project last month suggested India's wild tiger population has dropped from nearly 3,600 five years ago to about 1,411.

Conservators say that unless the government drastically improves enforcement steps against poachers and illegal wildlife traders, the number of tigers will continue to dwindle. Poaching and a loss of habitat are seen as the main threats to the species.