for National Geographic News
India's wild tiger population is now between 1,300 and 1,500—less than half of what it was in 2002—according to preliminary estimates from an ongoing government census.
The new numbers—announced at a gathering of conservationists in New Delhi last week—are a shocking drop from the previous population estimate of about 3,600.
The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has been conducting the new tiger census as part of a government-funded effort that has been appointed the equivalent of ten million U.S. dollars.
In addition to reviewing India's tiger numbers, the program will appraise the factors influencing the cat's long-term survival, said WII director Priya Ranjan Sinha.
So far the survey has found that "tigers appear to be doing well inside the country's tiger reserves, but not outside [protected] forest areas," Sinha said.
That means that most of the roughly 1,500 tigers in Indian parks and sanctuaries are more or less safe.
Conservationists say it is now critical to refocus conservation efforts on migratory and resident tiger populations in unprotected areas, such as the Hoshangabad region south of Bhopal in the central state of Madhya Pradesh (India map).
"Indian tigers are not entirely down and out," said Sujoy Banerjee, head of the species conservation program at the Indian branch of the international conservation organization WWF.
"But if we don't wake up now, the only tigers we will see will be at the zoo."
Experts note that the ongoing census uses a host of new tools, so there can't be a direct comparison to past surveys.
Those surveys primarily relied on the analysis and tally of tiger paw prints.
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