India's dwindling tiger population will never recover and it will take a miracle to save those left from habitat destruction and poaching, a renowned expert said on Wednesday.
Failure of authorities to understand the needs of tigers and provide protection to them has led to numbers falling to 1,300 now from around 3,700 in 2001-02, Valmik Thapar told Reuters ahead of the Reuters Environment Summit next week.
"I believe that the government of the day failed the tigers of India and we cannot recover this population ever again," said Thapar, who has spent the past three decades documenting the behaviour of tigers and crusading for their survival.
"A miracle is required to save the Indian tiger. But I don't believe in miracles, as the commitment to save tigers is non-existent."
India has half the world's surviving tigers, but their populations have suffered, driven by a demand for tiger skins and bones in China for traditional medicines.
Thapar, 55, has written 15 books about tigers and presented around 20 documentaries for broadcasters and channels such as the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet.
His close relationship over six or seven years with a tigress called "Macchli" -- meaning fish in Hindi due to a fish-like marking on her cheek -- is widely documented in his films.
Thapar, also known as India's "Tiger man", was also the first to document how male tigers behave in a family unit.
"What is happening now is a great tragedy," he said. "No one understands the needs of tigers. Committees set up to look after tigers are filled with people who know nothing about the tiger."
The bushy-bearded conservationist said government initiatives like the setting up of a Tiger Conservation Authority and a Wildlife Crime Bureau were just "lip service" and "rhetoric".
He said the tiger's survival was dependent on rapid action, reform and strong protection of the animals and their habitat.
But instead, Thapar said, the government was placing the animals under greater risk with a new law giving people rights over forest resources and advocating the co-existance of tigers and man.
"Lions don't co-exist with people in Africa, jaguars don't co-exist with people in South America and tigers and leopards have never co-existed with people in India," he said.
"It's a myth. It's an illusion. It's the biggest disaster that the present government has started to believe."
The Recognition of Forest Rights Act, passed last year and expected to formally become law in the coming months, grants some of India's most impoverished and marginalised communities the right to own and live off resource-rich forests.
But it has sparked debate amongst conservationists and the government who disagree on whether it will help save or further threaten tigers.
Thapar said from 1850 to 1950 at least 100,000 tigers were killed by man, 25,000 people were killed by tigers and around one million livestock were killed by tigers, proving that there was a huge amount of conflict between man and tigers.
"But our politicians have not understood this," said Thapar. "They think you can cuddle tigers."
He said there would be no legal cover for national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, leaving them open to exploitation by forest dwellers as well as by timber and poaching mafias.
"This is the end of forest India. It's like opening a bank and saying to the public come and loot."
Despite his distinguished career which was filled with thousands of memorable moments, Thapar said his life was a failure as he had failed in the battle to save India's tigers.
"The most moving and memorable time was with a tigress and her three tiny cubs. I watched her in the early morning sun for two hours, it brought tears to my eyes. I wept in joy -- the joy of the devotion of a mother to her little ones," he said.
"But if you look at it today, those mothers are being killed and the cubs are dying as the mothers don't return home."