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Indian Prime Minister Urges New Measures to Save the Tiger

The Indian Prime Minister has visited a tiger sanctuary in the northern state of Rajasthan amid growing concern over dwindling numbers of the big cats in the country. He is calling for more effective strategies to save the species.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spotted a tigress as he toured the Ranthambore tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan early Tuesday. But the sight was not enough to allay his fears about the plunge in the country's tiger population.

He told forest officials that the disappearance of many tigers from wildlife parks is a matter of national concern, and urged all possible steps to save the species.

The rare high-level visit to the park follows recent reports that all the tigers in one of the country's premier tiger reserves - the Sariska sanctuary - may have fallen prey to poachers.

The report triggered a national outcry, and prompted appeals from conservationists for urgent action.

Royal Bengal tigress Krishna sits with her cubs at the Alipore Zoological Garden in Calcutta, India
For the past three decades, a global effort to conserve the species has centered on India, where two-thirds of the world's estimated 5,000 remaining tigers live.

"Project Tiger," as it is called, did well for many years. But in recent years conservationists have warned that an increasing number of the big cats are being killed by organized crime networks, to feed a huge market in China and Tibet for their skin and body parts.

Mr. Singh asked forest officials to evolve tougher anti-poaching strategies.

"We need more effective instrumentalities to tackle the menace of poaching and smuggling, but as to the precise instrumentalities, I will wait for the report of the tiger force which I have set up," he said.

The prime minister also stressed the need to involve communities living on the edges of sanctuaries in the conservation effort.

Conservationists say fringe areas of wildlife parks have come under severe pressure from the country's growing population. Poor villagers compete with the wildlife for space and food: they encroach into the forests to cultivate more land, or kill animals such as deer for their own food, depleting the tigers' stock.

The newly established task force to review the management of the tiger parks has stressed the need to give these people a stake in conservation efforts.

Sunita Narain, who heads the task force, says: "The standard approach in India has been that we should arm our forest guards. I don't think that is the answer. The answer will have to lie again in how you can involve local communities so that they can become the custodians because all cases where poaching has survived over years has been where the people have actually been against the tiger."

Indian officials say there are about 3,500 left in 27 parks - but conservationists fear the number may be much lower.