India builds $12.5 million force to guard its tigers

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will spend $12.5 million to create a special force to guard its last surviving tigers, as numbers dwindle in the face of rampant poaching and destruction of their habitat.

Forest workers watch a tigress as she jumps into the waters of river Sundari Kati, after its release from a cage at Sundarbans, about 150 km (93 miles) south of Kolkata February 19, 2008. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal

Poorly armed and badly paid guards, mismanagement and corruption undermine the protection of tigers in India. There are thought to be just 1,411 left in India, according to a new survey that cut numbers by half since 2002 census.

The decline is even more alarming considering India had about 40,000 tigers a century ago.

Conservationists say it is unlikely the dwindling population will ever recover, but the government is not giving up just yet.

On Friday, Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram announced a $12.5 million one-off grant, mainly to raise, arm and deploy a special Tiger Protection Force.

“The number 1,411 should ring the alarm bell. That is the number of tigers in India,” he told parliament, presenting his budget for 2008/09. “The tiger is under grave threat.”

A severe lack of funds has meant forest guards and other staff have to wait up to a year to be paid and key positions have been left vacant.

Some of those money problems are being addressed, but experts say wildlife planning needs to be much better.

For instance, experts say around 300,000 of India’s poorest people living in its 28 tiger reserves need to be shifted out because many of them help poachers kill tigers and cut down forests.

Conservationists say recruits for the tiger protection force should come from tribesmen and forest communities, to help wean them away from poachers and use their expertise.

“Any benefit of a program has to show on the ground,” said A. Johnsingh, wildlife expert and adviser to World Wildlife Fund-India.

In January, India said it would spend an estimated $150 million to save its tigers over the next five years, using some of the money to shift villages and tribal communities out of tiger habitats.

It will also establish eight new tiger reserves.

Editing by Simon Denyer and Jerry Norton