NEW DELHI Tigers are in a "very, very precarious" state and could disappear altogether in nearly half of India's tiger reserves, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said on Wednesday.
India is a key player in efforts to conserve the dwindling global tiger population, which has plummeted to just a few thousand. Wildlife experts say tigers could be extinct in 20 years.
Illegal poaching, fuelled by a thriving trade in tiger parts, and natural habitat loss drove down numbers in India from about 40,000 a century ago to 1,411 at the last count in 2008.
Ramesh said out of 38 government-monitored tiger reserves, 12 were in good condition and nine were satisfactory.
"Seventeen are in a very, very, very precarious state," he said. He did not specify how many tigers were at risk.
"You could have a Panna or a Sariska in any of these 17 at any point of time," he said, referring to two well-known reserves which lost their tiger populations.
A special panel set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in 2006 thousands of villagers inside India's reserves would have to be relocated to protect tigers from poachers and smugglers.
Poaching is very profitable and poor villagers often help poachers in return for much-needed cash, while villagers also often cut down forests where tigers live to use as farmland.
Although the government has paid compensation to uprooted families, Ramesh said they were sometimes moved to underdeveloped areas where they were not able to make a proper living.
"We have to relocate 100,000 from these 38 reserves if we are to save the tiger," he told reporters.
"Only about 3,000 have been relocated so far." It is not enough to give them money. We also have to provide livelihood security for them," Ramesh said.
India must also strengthen policing along its borders with Nepal and Myanmar to control the illegal trade in animal parts, Ramesh said. New Delhi also wants China to phase out tiger farms, which it says operate in violation of international agreements and fuel demand in India.
The international police organisation Interpol estimates illegal wildlife trade may be worth more than $20 billion a year.
Tiger parts are often used in Chinese medicine, where conservationists say everything from whiskers to eyes and bones are used. Tiger fur is also highly valued.
Ramesh said he had recently rejected a proposed coal mining project in a tiger reserve.
(Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Paul Tait)