One of the most riveting images in the office of award-winning photographer and lifelong tiger advocate Belinda Wright isn't of the charismatic feline itself, but of its aftermath. Tibetan men are draped in the gleaming pelts — worth nearly $10,000 each on the black market — of a creature wildlife experts worry may be on its last legs.
The good news, notes Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, is that sales and display of tiger skins among Tibetans have dropped in response to a public awareness campaign by the Dalai Lama, the World Wildlife Fund and others. At the same time, however, an illegal demand for tiger bones and other body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine has prompted an expansion of tiger farming in China, where there's commercial lobbying to lift a domestic trade ban on tiger parts.
And that, coupled with escalating pressure on forest habitat in the tiger's biggest stomping ground, India, means the doomsday clock for Panthera tigris is ticking perilously close to midnight.
According to a new Indian-government-sponsored survey, no more than 1,500 Bengal tigers are left in India, where Project Tiger was launched 35 years ago after the country's first tiger census showed the population had dipped to about 1,800. Worldwide, the total number of wild tigers (of six sub-species, the Bengal is the most numerous) has dwindled to fewer than 5,000, says the World Wildlife Fund's Sybille Klenzendorf.
At a wildlife crime-prevention workshop held in early November near Ranthambhore National Park, core of the country's best-known tiger preserve, Indian and U.S. officials discussed ways to thwart poachers, whose frontline adversaries are poorly paid, ill-trained forest guards who often don't even carry guns. One plan, proposed recently by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India, would recruit retired soldiers to patrol tiger sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, conservationists worry about the effect of recently passed Indian legislation that recognizes the rights of an estimated 85 million members of traditional tribes to occupy forest land — a subject of dispute in a rapidly developing but still largely rural and poor country. Though India's 28 tiger reserves may be exempt as "critical habitat," "there are still a lot of details to be hammered out, and how the tribal bill will impact these core areas isn't clear," says Brian Gratwicke of the Washington, D.C.-based Save the Tiger Fund.
Also unclear, and contentious, is the role of tourism in the fight to save the tiger.
As more foreign and Indian visitors gravitate to tiger sanctuaries such as Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Kanha, Panna, Pench and Ranthambhore, they're being accompanied by new, often high-end, lodges and other facilities.
Under a recent partnership between India-based Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Conservation Corporation Africa, two lodges have opened in Bandhavgarh (said to have one of the country's highest tiger concentrations) and Pench national parks; two more are set to launch in Panna and Kanha early next year. The current tab at Bandhavgarh's Mahua Kothi, where room décor is inspired by local kutiyas, or forest dwellings: more than $1,500 per couple per night, including meals and game drives with a naturalist who holds forth from the cushy confines of a customized four-wheel drive.