Survey Finds Surprisingly Few Bengal Tigers in India A recent census of Bengal tigers indicates that there are far fewer tigers in India than previously believed. India's leading expert on tigers, Valmik Thapar, talks about the unchecked poaching that has devastated the wild tiger population.
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Survey Finds Surprisingly Few Bengal Tigers in India

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Survey Finds Surprisingly Few Bengal Tigers in India

Survey Finds Surprisingly Few Bengal Tigers in India

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In India, tigers and humans have always struggled to coexist. A new report shows just how badly the tigers are losing that struggle. According to a recent census, there are far fewer Bengal tigers living in the wild in India than previously believed - no more than 1,500.

Valmik Thapar has spent a lifetime observing tigers and working for their preservation. We reached him in New Delhi. I asked Valmik Thapar to compare the new tiger count with earlier population estimates.

Mr. VALMIK THAPAR (Wildlife Conservationist; Author, "The Last Tiger"): The previous estimate in 2001 and 2002 was 3,642 tigers, so it's very different. We are looking at a possible loss of over 2,200 tigers. So it's big news, but the world has not discovered of it yet.

ELLIOTT: Does these mean that the previous counts were off-based or does this mean that tigers are declining in larger numbers than expected?

Mr. THAPAR: I think our government would like to believe that the previous count was in error because the methodology used was not accurate. And this is the first count where science has been used, so the numbers are lower. But I have lived and worked with tigers for 31 years. And whatever the figures of tigers were, the late 1980s had several thousands tigers and we've lost all of them.

I will go so far as to say that if nothing is done in the next three months in terms of the emergency measures, India, within two years, will be left with three, 400 tigers on the verge of extinction and they will be enclosed with four walls to keep them alive and the wild tigers of India would no longer exist.

ELLIOTT: What's going on here? What is threatening the tiger populations in India?

Mr. THAPAR: I think there are two things. One is a huge pressure on the habitat by mining, by land use, by the corporate world, and the huge pressure in terms of poachers who have come in and used to their advantage the fact that we have a very low level of governance at the moment. And there's a huge demand in China for tiger's skins and bones.

This is about poaching mafias, big gangs, who deal with drugs and arms and also illegal trade in animal skins. This has been something ongoing for 10 years. In these 10 years, we haven't put into place excellent enforcement or anti-poaching measures. We allow the poachers to get away with murder.

ELLIOTT: You've said that people and tigers cannot co-exist. What do you mean by that?

Mr. THAPAR: People and tigers have never co-existed. From 1850 to 1950, a hundred thousand tigers were killed by man, and 30,000 people, as a minimum, were killed by tigers and over 600,000 livestock in this hundred-year period were killed by tigers because tigers eat four-legged animals.

So the relationship between men and tiger, even a kindergarten child knows, is one of huge conflict. Tigers require that space, just like lions do in Africa, and you can't change that. That's just a simple fact of life.

ELLIOTT: So you're calling for setting aside lands for tigers only, keeping people out, vigorously keeping poachers out?

Mr. THAPAR: Actually, I'm not calling for that. We have already in our constitution and 25, 30 years ago, set aside lands for tigers. The land is set aside. The unfortunate thing is that the state governments have not followed the law of the land. But yes, if you want to save the tiger, you're required to put away the land to save the tiger.

ELLIOTT: You've written many books about tigers, your most recent is called "The Last Tiger." Do you have a story that you could share with us about the tigers that you have been watching in India?

Mr. THAPAR: But I think one of my favorite stories is when in the early 1980s, I have searched for three, four years to look at tigers and little cubs in the wild. And suddenly one morning, I was driving in my Jeep, early morning sunrises, right on the middle of the road was a tigress with tiny little cubs and she was cuddling them, playing with them, right in front of me for about one hour.

I will never forget that in my life because I realized the incredible warmth, devotion and affection of the tigress to her cubs and she looks after them for two years, devoting her life to them and I realized that the tigress is a mother who's probably more devoted than even human mothers are. And it brought tears to my eyes watching the scene because people have this strange feeling that tigers are very aggressive and they kill people. But you cannot believe how gentle they are and that was my good fortune to see something like that.

ELLIOTT: Valmik Thapar is a natural historian and a tiger expert based in New Delhi. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. THAPAR: Not at all.

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