Poachers Put Bengal Tiger in Additional Peril

Poachers pose a severe threat to the bengal tiger — and to leopards — in India. Could this great beast become extinct? Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, discusses the big cat's bleak prospects and ineffective policing of poachers.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

For Bengal tigers to thrive in the wild, they need thick forests, plenty of water and plenty to eat. At the Sariska Wildlife Preserve in India, there is thick forest, there's plenty of water and plenty to eat. But there are no tigers. A federal investigation is under way. The Bengal tiger is the national symbol of India and an endangered species around the world. Five of India's 28 tiger parks are now missing tigers. Belinda Wright, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, joins us from New Delhi.

Ms. Wright, thanks for being with us.

Ms. BELINDA WRIGHT (Wildlife Protection Society of India): Thank you.

SIMON: And may I ask, how many Bengal tigers do you think are left in India?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, if we're very lucky, there's probably 1,800 to 2,000. The official figure, of course, is nearly double that.

SIMON: Are poachers catching up with them?

Ms. WRIGHT: Poachers are everywhere. Poaching of tigers and leopards is so widespread now and so organized.

SIMON: Who's buying Bengal tiger skins?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, there are two markets for tiger skins. One is trophies or displays by rich individuals. And the other is a very interesting one, which is traditional communities, mainly in the Tibetan Plateau, which use tiger and leopard skins both for ceremonial occasions, festivals and things, but also for coat trimmings. And the coat-trimming market seems to have broken the camel's back.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of how much money a tiger or a leopard skin will bring?

Ms. WRIGHT: The poacher will get, say, you know, 5,000 rupees for killing the tiger. There'll be a group of them, though. And so--say, 20,000 rupees. And then it goes up and up and up until, if the skin reaches, say, Lhasa, it'll be sold for $10,000.

SIMON: Five thousand rupees, I'm told, is about $115.

Ms. WRIGHT: So, you know, this is our national animal. There's millions and millions of dollars of tourism trade that is purely centered around the tiger. And yet, you know, we're losing it just for a few dollars.

SIMON: Monsoon season, of course, is about to begin at the end of this month. And I gather that's a critical time for enforcement.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah, the monsoon--poachers take advantage of the monsoon. The parks are closed, a lot of the enforcement people, the forest guards and things, either go back to their villages--they're not supposed to, but, you know, there's nobody doing enforcement, there's nobody doing anti-poaching. And it's an easy time for poachers to set up camp in the forest, albeit a bit wet, and to poison, trap, you know, and electrocute these animals. It's not that difficult to find them if you're a good tracker.

SIMON: If the poachers are working through the monsoon, why aren't some of the Indian police that are dispatched to try and frustrate them?

Ms. WRIGHT: There is a complete lack of motivation. The foot soldiers, be it forest guards or home guards posted around these reserves, have lost interest. They're not getting the support that they should get. They live in pretty ghastly conditions. There's just no action.

SIMON: What is your group, the Wildlife Protection Society, advocating that the Indian government do or others should do?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, you know, the number-one priority, immediate priority, is to have good anti-poaching and have a wildlife crime bureau set up here in Delhi that can operate anywhere in India. And unless we have good enforcement, we are not going to be able to save the tiger in India.

I've just spent five weeks in Rantham-Bosariska(ph) in Kanha in this heat. I mean, its' very, very hot at the moment. And they're just vanishing. And nobody seems to care.

SIMON: May I ask, when you say tigers you know well, you mean tigers you recognize as we would recognize friends?

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah. Individuals.

SIMON: Ms. Wright, thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Belinda Wright, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, speaking with us from New Delhi.

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