GENEVA – Even in their own reserves, they are rampantly poached for their "lucky" collar bones, fashionable skins and decorative claws. When they flee onto human territory, they are poisoned, electrocuted, shot or trapped. There is nowhere left for India's dwindling tiger population to turn.
The large cat's rapidly plummeting numbers prompted a United Nations conservation body to write Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (search) on Tuesday, urging him to accept help in saving the largest of cats from extinction.
"We haven't taken this step lightly," said Willem Wijnstekers, Secretary-General of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (search), or CITES. "We realize there is a risk India might feel it's being embarrassed. But this is a last-ditch attempt to get our message across."
Poaching by organized crime networks and the clearing of forests for human settlements has caused India's tiger population to drop sharply, threatening the species' survival.
Asia's tiger population was over 100,000 in the 19th century, but has since plunged to between 5,000 and 7,000 cats.
Official numbers in India range from 3,500 to 3,700, though many conservationists believe that number is "grossly exaggerated."
"If numbers drop too low, you then begin to encounter all sorts of genetic problems. If you end up with several hundred, genetically, the species is doomed," CITES Senior Enforcement Officer John Sellar said.
Tigers range from India and Russia to China and Southeast Asia. Tiger hunting is now illegal everywhere, and international trade in tigers and its body parts is banned under CITES. India has laws to protect wildlife and imposes stringent punishment for violators.
But a high premium is attached to tiger skins, as well as the use of tiger bones, penises and claws in traditional Chinese medicine. Gamblers regard tiger collar bones as great lucky charms, and the animal is prized as an exotic pet. As a result, there is a thriving trade from India to Tibet, Nepal, China, Russia and elsewhere.
Wijnstekers says gangs of organized and well-funded hunters are responsible for most of the poaching, but Sellar added that collusion by government officials and forest reserve officers with poachers and traders makes the problem worse.
"I'm afraid the reality of life is where we see serious level of wildlife crime invariable corruption is playing a part of that," Sellar said.
India's Project Tiger (search) — launched some 30 years ago by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (search) — is riddled with problems such as desperately ill-equipped and underpaid field workers and poorly coordinated anti-poaching programs. Most forest guards have no radios, no jeeps, no semiautomatic rifles.
"Most are walking around on foot carrying essentially only a wooden stick," Sellar said. "We doubt these people can protect themselves, let alone the tigers."