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A 'Royal Bengal Tiger' gestures inside its enclosure at Alipore zoo in Kolkata, on June 10, 2008. The World Bank launched a joint project with conservation groups and Hollywood to help reverse the dramatic decline of wild tigers in Asia, in what is seen as the single most important act to save the Big Cat. (DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)
A 'Royal Bengal Tiger' gestures inside its enclosure at Alipore zoo in Kolkata, on June 10, 2008. The World Bank launched a joint project with conservation groups and Hollywood to help reverse the dramatic decline of wild tigers in Asia, in what is seen as the single most important act to save the Big Cat. (DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)

STEPHANIE NOLEN

The failing fight to save India's tigers Add to ...

Fateh Singh Rathore's body lay on ice in the great room of his house at the edge of this park on the day he died a few weeks back, and streams of people poured in to pay emotional respects to a father figure, one of the giants of India's conservation movement.

The house grew calm only late in the night, when the grieving family at last lay down to rest for a few hours before the cremation. But the quiet was shattered before dawn.

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A tiger crept from the jungle to within 50 metres of the house, and let loose three bone-shaking roars. "It was a heart-moving farewell his animals were trying to give him," Mr. Rathore's son Goverdhan said wistfully the next morning.

Well might the tigers lament, for with the passing of Mr. Rathore, they have lost a dedicated champion at a time when their own future is ever more imperilled.

Mr. Rathore ran this park for decades, and turned it into India's showpiece tiger reserve. But eventually his relations with government soured over what he saw as a failure to do enough to protect tigers, and he left the Forest Service to start his own organization, Tiger Watch. When, in 2004, they blew the whistle on systematic poaching in Ranthambhore, an enraged Forest Service banned Mr. Rathore from his beloved park.

He was permitted back only two days before he died. That morning, he and his son came upon a pair of courting tigers, throaty in their mutual interest, each of them at least 120 kilograms of rippling muscle and tawny fur.

Mr. Rathore's battle for this park is, in many ways, a writ-small version of all that is wrong with India's tiger conservation effort: a story of good intentions pitted against a fiercely protective but incompetent and incapable bureaucracy.

The tiger, of course, is one of the planet's most endangered animals. Three of its nine species have been wiped out, a fourth exists only in zoos. India is ostensibly home to nearly half the world's remaining population of some 3,200 animals. Here the tiger is the subject of a thousand years of scroll paintings, epic poems, sculpture and classical dance. They are dreaded as "man eaters" for their brutally swift ability to drag off unsuspecting farmers, but have proven little match for poisoned carcasses left out by fearful villagers, or poachers.

A century ago, when Rudyard Kipling created the scheming tiger Shere Khan, who stalked a jungle much like this one, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India's forests. The government announced Monday the results of a new population estimation: 1,706 tigers. That was a gain of 12 per cent over the population counted in the same area in 2006, and included a further couple hundred tigers found in areas that had not been surveyed previously.

A jocular Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests, announced the new numbers to a hall packed with international delegates from all the tiger-range countries, environmentalists and conservation funders such as the World Bank. "We have reason to feel satisfied with what we have done," he said.

But even the government's own experts expressed alarm as they announced the figures. While they say they found more tigers (through camera-trapping, radio tracking and other means) in the most sophisticated and extensive such exercise ever undertaken in the world, the amount of the country where tigers were found was found to have declined dramatically the past four years. "Tiger occupancy areas declined from 93,000 to 72,800 square kilometres and this is extremely alarming," said Y.V. Jhala, a biologist who co-directed the census.

Also troubling: fully a third of the tigers counted are living outside the country's 39 tiger reserves - many of them in regions with high population density - which makes it critically difficult to protect them.

While Mr. Jhala described an impressive process of forest "sampling" in nearly 30,000 different spots, the improved tiger count raised some eyebrows in the conservation community. Most of the country's independent conservationists say the true tiger population figure is likely no higher than 1,000. "The minister and the Forest Service needed some good news today, they needed good numbers," one environmentalist said with a shrug after the announcement. But the continual reports of tiger deaths, disappearances and clashes with humans mean the population can only be declining, these experts say.

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