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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's tigers are facing their severest crisis with only between 1,300 and 1,500 left in the wild, less than half the population of endangered big cats previously estimated, conservationists said on Friday.
The estimates are based on a tiger census by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India, due to be made public later this year.
It is based on a new counting method and contradicts the previous figure of 3,642 reported by the 2001 and 2002 census.
"These are estimates done with what the government considers ... a robust scientific process and is a benchmark," Valmik Thapar, a renowned natural historian and tiger expert, told a WWF meeting called to discuss the tiger's plight.
"We all believe, in and out of government, that it is somewhere between 1,300 and 1,500 -- that's shocking that we allowed it in five or six years to reach this dismal, abysmal state."
India is believed to have around half the world's surviving tigers. But their numbers have fallen drastically due to poaching to meet a demand for skins as well as bones and other body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines.
The new figures were gleaned from the agenda for the forthcoming meeting of India's National Board of Wildlife, which will be chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and is expected to take place within the next month.
According to a recent report in Bioscience journal, Asia's largest predator is on a "catastrophic" path to extinction as numbers continue to decline because of increased poaching, habitat destruction and poor conservation efforts by governments.
Thapar said India should crackdown on poachers and break open the organised criminal poaching gangs -- in the manner Kenyan authorities did in the late 1980's when they took a zero tolerance approach to elephant poachers.
"We require the same political will," said Thapar. "This is not the moment to do a post mortem, it is the moment to persuade everybody who cares that job number one is flush out all those who poach."
Experts said forest guards and other staff were having to wait up to a year to be paid and key positions were left vacant because of lack of funds.
Legislation passed last year giving rights to up to 40 million tribal people living in India's forest areas was also a serious concern, said conservationists, adding that wildlife sanctuaries and national parks should be exempt for the law.
A press statement from Prime Minister Singh's office said on Friday that he had written to state authorities to urgently take steps such as filling vacancies for frontline forestry officials.