India wants to use retired soldiers to patrol tiger sanctuaries to save species

India will need the help of retired soldiers in patroling tiger sanctuaries to try saving the vanishing cats.

Conservationists said the idea had its faults, but at least indicated that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government were taking the tigers' plight seriously.

The plan was part of a report presented Thursday to the National Wildlife Board - which Singh chairs - by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India as part of a two-year survey on India's tigers.

The report confirmed initial findings that there are no more than 1,500 tigers in India's reserves and jungles - down from about 3,600 just five years ago, and an estimated 100,000 a century ago.

The report suggested strengthening forces that patrol sanctuaries by recruiting retired soldiers.

It also recommended appointing a senior police official to head the recently created Wildlife Crime Bureau, set up to halt tiger killings and punish poachers.

"Assistance is being provided for creation of 'tiger protection force' comprising of ex-army personnel and native work force," a government statement said.

The report suggested that retired soldiers, who have returned to their villages, could be recruited to join patrols in those areas to combat poachers.

"The idea was to utilize these people with their background in enforcement, intelligence and gun management," said the director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, Belinda Wright, who attended the meeting.

Wright said that she was skeptical of the specific plan, and that her group had studied the issue and found retired soldiers who were unwilling to join such a project.

"They seem quite happy to enjoy their retirement and pension," she said.

The report also recommended speeding up the relocation of villages from within reserves, filling empty park ranger posts and laying out "eco-tourism" guidelines to benefit local populations.

Conservationists said the major breakthrough was Singh's reaction to the report.

"The real progress is that the prime minister sat for two hours and listened to us and realized that this is a real problem," Wright said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Valmik Thapar, an independent filmmaker and one of India's leading tiger experts, who has been one of the fiercest critics of government policy on the matter.

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," he told reporters.

But while these efforts could save tigers that are in sanctuaries, the study said prospects were bleak for those roaming in unprotected forests.

"One thing this report has found, very alarmingly, is that there are virtually no wild tiger populations outside the reserves," Wright said.

Many tigers have been killed either by poachers supplying body parts to the lucrative traditional Chinese medicine market, or by angry farmers and villagers competing with the animals for the same habitat.

As if to illustrate the situation, on Friday forest rangers were forced to hunt a tigress that had apparently strayed from the Tadoba-Andhari sanctuary in the western state of Maharashtra, killing three people and mauling two others.

"Both humans and tigers are fighting for space. It's a difficult situation," said wildlife officer B. Majumdar, who was coordinating the hunt.

Angry villagers stoned the rangers' vehicle, demanding they kill the tiger.

"You must get rid of it, or we will kill it," said Ganesh Deshmukh, a farmer. "We are scared to go to our fields and can't send our children to school."

Majumdar said they had tried several ways to drive away the tiger and were now going to try and trap or tranquilize it. "Shooting is the last resort," he said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova