Rampant poaching and loss of habitat have devastated the wild tiger population in India, which a century ago was believed to number in the tens of thousands.
A survey by the Wildlife Institute of India says there are no more than 1,500 tigers in India's reserves and jungles - down from about 3,600 just five years ago. The survey was presented Thursday to a National Wildlife Board meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The numbers released Thursday confirm fears expressed when initial results from the study were reported in May.
One measure proposed by the survey says a police official should be put in charge of the Wildlife Crime Bureau, established to halt the killings and punish poachers.
"There would be an immediate creation of a tiger protection force and a senior policeman will head the new Wildlife Crime Bureau, which has been headless for the past few months," said Valmik Thapar, one of India's leading tiger experts, who attended Thursday's meeting.
The study also recommended setting up a stronger force - to include retired army personnel - to buttress existing tiger protection measures and protect reserves.
Thapar, who has been a fierce critic of government policy, said the measures being taken could be the "beginning of a new era in wildlife conservation where the government, non-governmental organizations and individual conservationists work together."
The study said the greatest loss of tigers was not from the reserves but from areas outside where the tigers ranged.
The population in tiger reserves and protected areas has changed marginally, but in unprotected forests it has sharply declined because of the degradation of habitat and other factors, the study said.
Conservationists also attributed the drop in numbers to earlier faulty estimates.
"The earlier tiger census figures were exaggerated because there was a tendency that if you are a manager of a tiger reserve, if you did a census and showed a lower number, your knuckles were rapped," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Wright said India needs much better enforcement, infrastructure, training, accountability and for its Wildlife Crime Bureau to be truly functional.
"This is not just an issue for India. The whole world is watching to see how India deals with this crisis. We are talking about the most charismatic mammal on this planet," she said.
The last major tiger census relied on estimating the population by examining footprints. The current study is far more extensive and accurate, using camera "traps" triggered by passing animals, as well as hundreds of wildlife officers tracking the animals through droppings and footprints, Wright said.
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