On Monday, one year and a day after becoming prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh traveled to Ranthambore National Park, the celebrated sanctuary of India's national animal: the tiger.
The visit to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve was less a warm and fuzzy photo opportunity than an attempt to take on a budding political crisis. The tiger, as endangered worldwide as it is iconic in this country, is vanishing from India's tiger parks.
With a growing and lucrative market for everything tiger -- from skin to bone to the tiger's penis, used in Chinese traditional medicine -- tiger poachers have evidently had a run on several government-protected parks. A handful of poaching networks have been nabbed here in the capital in recent months, and their bundles of carefully tanned tiger skins displayed to a news media hungry for as much tiger-poaching copy as possible.
Most startling of all, a federal law enforcement inquiry found earlier this month that there was not a single tiger left at another famous Indian tiger reserve, called Sariska. At least two or three poaching networks were operating in the park, the probe found, and it raised the possibility of collusion by forest guards. Even in Ranthambore, the jewel in India's tiger sanctuary crown, 18 tigers have gone missing, according to press reports.
In fact, the tiger is among several endangered species that are in peril across the country, largely because of pressures on land and water. But the tiger, because of its symbolic potency, is the one that has seized the imagination of the country and now caught the prime minister's attention.
"Reports of the decline in the tiger population have once again alerted us to this grim reality," Singh said in a speech in April, adding, "Our government will take all the required steps to protect the tiger and other endangered species."
Singh ordered the federal investigation into Sariska. He appointed a so-called Tiger Task Force to draft a conservation policy. Earlier this year, a meeting of the National Board of Wildlife, which he chairs, was convened for the first time in 17 months. His office has even dangled the possibility of creating a special law enforcement unit assigned to wildlife protection.
India is a signer of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, and it stands to face punitive measures should it fail to do its part to curb the illegal trade in tigers.
The Tiger Task Force called last Thursday for tougher measures to control poaching. Also last week, figures from the environment ministry showed that at least 122 tigers had been killed in the country's sanctuaries between 1999 and 2003; another 62 succumbed to what the government called "unnatural deaths."
"From a law enforcement perspective, it can't get any more serious," said John Sellar, a senior enforcement officer from the convention on trade of endangered species.
"You're talking about a highly endangered species," he said.
No one really knows how many tigers are left in India. The environment ministry estimates more than 3,600 tigers in its 28 tiger reserves, though tiger advocates angrily refute their claims. A tiger census is under way in several national parks.
Today, of India's 28 reserves, at least five are in trouble, according to one of the country's most vocal tiger champions, Belinda Wright, of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.