India's efforts to stop poaching of its endangered tigers are failing despite millions of dollars of funding, a new protection force and experiments with animal transfers, experts say.
The federal government swung into action in 2007 after India's tiger population plunged to just 1,350 -- just over a third of the 3,700 estimated to be alive in 2002.
A new tiger conservation plan chalked out some bold and urgent steps to end the poaching menace, move forest dwellers away from reserves and transfer tigers from one reserve to another while monitoring their movements.
Wildlife experts and directors of the 38 Indian tiger reserves met in Delhi last week for a conference on the highly-prized animals which were estimated to once number about 40,000 before independence from Britain in 1947.
"India has framed all the policies and is doling out ample monetary aid to save the tiger but it is clearly not trickling down," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection of India who attended the conference. "Poaching cases are just not stopping."
In the last nine months, 25 tigers have been killed by poachers and another 43 have died due to other causes.
On average, poachers kill 30 tigers every year in guarded reserves with demand driven by China where pelts, claws and bones are prized in traditional medicine.
In August, an Indian delegation in Beijing asked China for full co-operation for controlling cross-border trafficking of tiger parts and to send a clearer message to smugglers, but no official agreement was reached.
"Every single tiger faces threat. It is a shame that poachers' networks are not being cracked by the police," said P K Sen, a retired forest official who heads a tiger conservation programme in New Delhi.
Sen says India should implement all its conservation plans before calling on China to crack down on the tiger trade. "We have to fix our problems first before telling China what they should do," Sen said.
Ineffective bureaucracy, corruption, pressure on land for use by developers, a domestic insurgency and lack of modern equipment are to blame, say campaigners.
Sen said Maoist rebels are active in seven of the 38 tiger reserves established to protect the animal, meaning no official tiger census has been conducted since the year 2000.
"Forget tiger census and forest management as in the past nine years even officers avoid entering these Maoist-infested reserves," said Sen, who stressed that ending extremist left-wing violence was the key.
Tiger hunting is illegal worldwide and the trade in tiger parts is banned under a treaty binding 167 countries, including India.
Experts said the porous border between India and Nepal continues to serve as a smuggling corridor for the poachers, who bribe poor forest dwellers to guide them through the dense jungles.
Alarmed by the dwindling numbers, the government has recruited retired army personnel to form a "tiger protection force" to guard sanctuaries.
New young field officers have been trained up, cameras have been installed to guard the reserves and many tigers have been radio-tagged to monitor their movements.
In 2008, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also set up a national wildlife crime prevention bureau, drawing experts from the police, environmental agencies and customs in a bid to break up the poaching network.
But the idea of bringing together different arms of the state has been handicapped by bureaucratic infighting.
"The state governments are just not understanding how critical the issue is," a senior official at the ministry of forests and environment said. "Most are very slow in implementing the conservation plan. We are losing the plot."
India's 29 state governments enjoy independent power on land issues and most of them continue to sell land around the tiger reserves for development for hotels, tourist resorts or even mining, he said.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) wants commercial use of land near the protected forests to be banned and buffer zones created.
The NTCA, which has a budget of 125 million dollars for 38 tiger reserves over four years, has also started moving tigers from one area to another to help protect numbers.
Two tigers have been transferred from reserves in Madhya Pradesh, central India, to Sariska, a reserve situated in Rajasthan, a western state.
The experiment is designed to ensure a wide distribution of tigers and revive the sanctuary in Rajasthan, but conservationists say success now depends on the new state protecting them from poachers.
"If we don't learn from our mistakes then all experiments will fail and the tigers could easily be found in the list of extinct animals," warned NTCA chief Rajesh Gopal.