NEW DELHI – The Indian government plans to spend more than $13 million establishing a special ranger force to protect the country’s endangered tigers, following pressure from international conservationists to save the wild cats.
The funding proposed Friday by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram follows the announcement just weeks ago of a $153 million program to create new tiger reserves, underscoring renewed efforts by India’s government to protect the big cats.
New estimates suggest India’s wild tiger population has dropped from nearly 3,600 five years ago to about 1,411, the government-run Tiger Project said last month.
“The number 1,411 should ring the alarm bells … The tiger is under grave threat,” Chidambaram told Parliament during his budget presentation for 2008-2009.
Chidambaram said the National Tiger Conservation Authority would be granted about $13.15 million to “raise, arm and deploy” a Tiger Protection Force. While the budget is just a proposal at this stage, Parliament is widely expected to pass it without opposition later this month.
Conservationists welcomed the government’s proposal, saying a new force would need to be specially trained and armed to protect tigers from poachers.
“They are finally addressing a very important problem — poaching,” Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said Saturday. “I would imagine that much of the existing system would be improved by the injection of the funds.”
The Tiger Project plans to create eight new reserves to protect the tigers, covering an area of more than 11,900 square miles at a cost about $153 million. Private groups will contribute extra funding.
Some 250 villages, or an estimated 200,000 people, will be relocated under the plan. The government has promised each relocated family about $25,600.
The population of tigers in Asia is estimated at around 3,500 today compared to nearly 5,000 in 1997, according to Wright.
Unless the government drastically improves enforcement steps against poachers and illegal wildlife traders, the number of tigers will continue to dwindle, Wright said.