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Panna National Park in north central India had 24 tigers as recently as three years ago. Now it has none. According to the BBC, Panna has become the second tiger reserve in India, following Sariska National Park, to lose every one of its tigers to poaching. And another, Sanjay National Park, may be the third. India once boasted one of the most admired conservation programs in Asia, with a series of reserves devoted to the protection of the Bengal tiger. In the 1970s, prime minister Indira Gandhi—after meeting with Guy Mountfort, one of the early founders and trustees of WWF—launched Project Tiger, a comprehensive conservation blueprint for establishing the tiger reserve system. By the 1990s, there were 28 tiger reserves in 17 Indian states, comprising over one percent of the country’s total area, each consisting of a core area where no human activity was to be allowed, surrounded by buffer zones of limited activity. Indira Gandhi was a powerful advocate for conservation, but after her assassination in 1984, the reserves received diminishing attention and resources from government. Efforts to relocate people in and around the reserves were bitterly contested, undermining plans to set aside core areas. While existing park staff were aging, no new staff were recruited, leaving rangers demoralized and subject to bribery by poachers. In recent years, the decline of tigers has become so critical that many specialists fear the species cannot survive: Captive tigers cannot be released in the wild since they lack the behavioral skills necessary to hunt wild game and will turn to easier prey, including domestic livestock and humans. In 2004, news broke that tigers had been completely poached out of Sariska, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, a park with some 40 tigers in 1970. Shamed by widespread national and international dismay, the Indian government assembled a task force, which issued a report the following year. The report, however, failed to grapple with poaching or human-tiger conflict, and it was roundly criticized by one of the experts recruited to write it, the Indian conservationist and documentary filmmaker Valmik Thapar. Of those who dismissed the need for armed rangers to patrol the parks, he said, “Would these activists demand that there be no gunmen outside their banks and ATMs? The forest is a liquid bank. Removing armed guards is like standing outside a bank, with baskets of cash, saying ‘take it all.’” He was scathing on the Indian government’s refusal to make hard choices to save the tiger: “Nothing short of a miracle can save tigers in the wild in this country.” His despair was shared by Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, based in New Delhi, a group dedicated to uncovering poaching rings. In 2005, she told the BBC, “It’s not another tiger crisis, it’s the final one.” In 2007, she said, “India is letting the tiger slip through its fingers. It’s going to be one of the biggest conservation debacles the world has ever known.” Tragically, India has not taken steps to control its poaching problem, although both the government and wildlife protection organizations are well aware that improved law enforcement could stem the tide. Its conservation program continues to be poorly managed: Wright and other experts recently pleaded with the government to discontinue plans to translocate tigers from other parks into Panna until the poaching problem was addressed. Likewise, China, where much of the demand for tiger products originates, has done little to control the illegal traffic. What will it take to save the tiger? Perhaps nothing short of universal, international outrage.
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