It may be far harder, in fact, to catch a poacher than a tiger. Typically, says Desai, who has spent a decade chasing poachers and pelt dealers across the central Indian state of Maharashtra, the hunt begins with a tip-off from informants or rival dealers. Then you arrange a pelt showing. When the dealer unfurls his roll of pelts, you sniff each skin to check its quality. After that, you arrange the buyin the midst of which the police pounce, arresting the dealer. This hunt can take months, only to be followed by the legal battle, which can take years. "It's not just about nabbing and nailing them in the act," says Desai.
Though India remains the world's last significant sanctuary for wild tigers, the numbers there are dwindling fast. The country's wild tiger population has dropped from about 100,000 in the 19th century to as few as 1,200 to 1,800 today. In another five years this feline population could plunge to a levelaround 500 catswhere in many parts of India it would no longer be able to sustain itself. At that point, they would survive almost exclusively in zoolike safari parks. "India is letting the tiger slip through its fingers," says Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "It's going to be one of the biggest conservation debacles the world has ever known." Globally, the tiger's future looks similarly bleak. A major study released last month by the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, the World Wildlife Fund and Washington's Smithsonian National Zoological Park reports that tigers now occupy an area 41% smaller than a decade ago. The report warns that, over the next 20 years, tigers are poised to "disappear in many places, or shrink to the point of 'ecological extinction.'"
Poaching has always been a problem in India, but economic growth across the border has pushed hunters to new levels of greed. As the ranks of affluent Chinese increase, so does the demand for tiger skins, along with ground tiger bones, whiskers and penises for use in traditional Chinese medicine. A large, unblemished pelt can fetch over $10,000, and powdered tiger bones sell for hundreds of dollars per kilogram. Neighboring Tibet has become a virtual shopping mall for tigers. In an undercover visit in 2005, conservationist Wright filmed vendors in Lhasa hawking dozens of pelts and swatches in the back rooms of stores and on street cornersan exposé that led the Dalai Lama to condemn the trade.
Chinese demand may be driving the poaching boom, but conservationists blame New Delhi for failing to protect the tigers. Wright reserves particular ire for the government's 30-year-old showcase conservation effort, Project Tiger, which is widely regarded as understaffed and underfunded. "The government hasn't recruited any new forest staff in 15 years," she says. Remarks Valmik Thapar, one of India's foremost tiger experts and the director of a conservation group called the Ranthambhore Foundation: "The government just doesn't have the will to save the tiger."
That message may, at least, have gotten through to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who acknowledged last year that India needed "a more effective strategy for tackling poaching and smuggling." In April 2005 he convened a Tiger Task Force, headed by Sunita Narian, one of India's most-admired environmentalists. The Task Force recommended streamlining government agencies and establishing a well-funded wildlife-crime bureau that would take the burden of protection away from organizations like the Wildlife Protection Society of India. But P.K. Sen, head of the World Wildlife Fund's India Tiger Conservation Program and a former director of Project Tiger, says the Task Force was a disappointment from the start. "There was nothing new in the tiger action plan," he claims. "The Task Force members only looked at the best parks in the country, and never even went to the worst ones."
A year has passed since the Task Force issued its recommendations, and there's scant evidence of progress. The wildlife-crime bureau is still just a promising idea, and the government agencies in charge of conservation remain as ineffective as ever. Some wildlife experts argue that the Task Force may even be making the crisis worse. In its recommendations, it tries hard to balance concern for the animals with promoting the rights of poor farmers and tribal groups who share their land. "There are villages inside core tiger-reserve areas with no food, no education," says Narain. "While we need to arm guards and build fences, we also need to find ways to improve the lives of tribals and other poor people." But any gain for people can be a loss for the tiger, and conservationists argue that the tribal communities sometimes assist poaching. "Every tiger that walks into the forest is a cash register," says Wright. "He represents years of funds for every poor person that lives near his habitat." A bill up for debate in parliament this month would allow tribal communities expanded land and building rights in wildlife reserves, which threatens to crowd tigers off their few remaining sanctuaries. "If they recognize the tribal-rights bill," says Thapar, "the wildlife-protection act and the forest-conservation act will just collapse."
Meanwhile, every month that India spends debating the tiger's future, that future grows grimmer. As many as 250 tigers are slaughtered by Indian poachers each year, according to Wright, and as populations fall, poachers chase the animals deeper into the reserves. Nowhere is safe. In the Vidarbha region, which includes the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, a sanctuary where the tiger population had expanded healthily for a quarter of a century, 12 tigers have died in the past 18 months. Some conservationists suspect that other tiger reserves have already been virtually emptied of their inhabitants.
Desai, the poacher hunter, despairs for the animals he lives to protect. Despite his efforts, he laments, "There's an unbelievable quantity of skins on the market." Indeed, as India revels in its emergence as a global economic power, conservationists wonder if the unique wildlife that once owned the land is simply being left behind, shed like an old skin. "I think India has to ask itself if it really wants the tiger," says Wright. "Because the signs are it doesn't."