Protection of tigers in India reached a peak in the late 1980s before deteriorating. According to leading conservationists, both tiger and leopard populations are now nearing extinction levels, despite claims to the contrary by the Indian government.
"I believe this is the worst it--ever been for tigers in India," says the conservationist Valmik Thapar. "We have tried everything," adds Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Poaching is worse during monsoon season when parks are closed, and smuggling [parts] into China and Tibet continues to increase." Poachers sell tiger parts, which could fetch $10,000 or more, for use in traditional medicine.
Preserving tiger populations in India's parks has been derailed by a ballooning human population and the lack of a clear management policy. Tigers are ecological stars for tourists and a rising Indian middle class. Others view the animals as a recreational asset in the history of Indian sport. As late as the early 20th century, hunters shot tigers from the backs of elephants in elaborate safaris called "shikars."
India has four tiger reserves, but all is not well within them. With its 168 square miles and well-oiled management, Bhandavgarh Park gives the impression of a five-star residence for animals. Its small size, high concentration of tigers (56), and its active tracking of the cats by radio-equipped, elephant-riding forest guards allow visitors to see tigers at remarkably close range. Yet when besieged by cars full of noisy enthusiasts, Bhandavgarh begins to look like an amusement park where animals, grown tolerant of vehicles and crowds, perform for the crowds.
Corbett Park on the other hand, with its 819 square miles of reserve forest, has an air of majesty and mystery protected by park...