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UN Group Urges India to Save the Tiger

India has established a task force to review the management of its tiger reserves. The measure came as a United Nations conservation body appealed to the Indian prime minister to take action to save the dwindling population of tigers. India has been on the frontlines of efforts to save the big cat from extinction.

Officials in New Delhi say the five-member task force will suggest ways to strengthen tiger conservation efforts.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh established the task force soon after the head of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species urged him to do more to check the plunge in the country's tiger population.

There are an estimated 5,000 tigers left in a handful of Asian countries. In India, official numbers range around 3,500. But wildlife conservationists say that figure may be hugely overstated.

Concern about the tiger's numbers in India was triggered by recent reports that there may not be a single tiger in one of the country's premier tiger reserves - the Sariska sanctuary in Rajasthan state.

The Sariska reserve is one of 27 Indian tiger sanctuaries established about 25 years ago as part of a major conservation effort to save the cat.

Conservationists fear all the tigers at the Sariska reserve may have fallen prey to poachers.

Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, says there has been an alarming rise in poaching in many of the country's sanctuaries.

"At the moment we are seeing a very definite decrease in numbers of wild tigers in our protected areas and (an) increase in poaching incidents," she explained. " And this combined with a complete lack of focus in anti-poaching methods and fairly poor management in our tiger reserves is a disastrous combination."

Organized crime networks poach tigers for their skins and body parts, which are smuggled out of the country through Nepal and Tibet. The parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

India's tigers have been increasingly targeted over the past decade since tiger numbers dwindled in East Asia. The U.N. conservation body says most forest guards are too poorly equipped to fend off poachers - and have no radios, jeeps or rifles to take on the well-funded gangs.

Ms. Wright says time is running out for the tiger, and urgent measures are needed to protect the remaining big cats in the country.

"We need a very clear message from our political leaders," she said. " I think we need a new wildlife force or secretariat. We also urgently need a national wildlife crime bureau. They have to move fast and make some very dramatic decisions in order to achieve that."

Wildlife experts say tiger sanctuaries are also under pressure from the country's growing population, as poor villagers steadily encroach into forests to cultivate more land, and sometimes even collaborate with poachers.