PHALODI QUARRY, India - With homemade muskets, Lakhan and his brothers tracked one of India's endangered Bengal tigers as it slunk along the forested trails and lakes of Ranthambhore National Park, not far from Lakhan's village. Then, under cover of night, one of them fired a bullet into the chest of the howling cat.
"Hunger," said the wiry Lakhan, pointing to his concave stomach, which was covered by a white lungi, or skirtlike wrap. "That's why I did it. That scenario hasn't changed much. My heart pounds when we kill a tiger. But we have pressures."
Lakhan has killed three tigers in recent years and has been in jail on and off for selling their thick striped coats, as well as their bones, whiskers, and even their glowing amber eyes. Each tiger has fetched him more money than he can earn in six months of farming sesame for its seeds.
Lakhan is from the Mogya community, a poaching tribe whose people have hunted the giant felines for centuries here in the northern desert state of Rajasthan.
But just as poaching ensures the Mogyas' survival, it might also ensure the tigers' extinction.
In the last 100 years, tiger populations around the world have declined by 95 percent. In India, home to at least half of the world's tigers, an estimated 1,500 remain, a decline of more than 50 percent since 2001, according to the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority. In the last six years, it is believed, tigers have been killed at a rate of nearly one a day.
Over the next 20 years, the tiger population could "disappear in many places, or shrink to the point of ecological extinction," according to a 2006 report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington.
Several factors have contributed to the decline in India, including a growing human population. There is also a demand for tiger parts from such places as China, where tiger skins priced at $12,000 and more are used for luxury clothes and wall hangings, and where equally pricey tiger bones are used in traditional medicines. Compounding the problem, wildlife activists say, is a pro-development Indian government more concerned with the economy than the environment.
The tiger is India's national symbol, and on omnipresent tourism posters, the elegant and supple cat is shown strutting toward the camera like a supermodel. But in India there are already several tiger reserves with no tigers, leading some conservationists to wonder whether a booming nation and its tigers can coexist.
Even in the woods of Ranthambhore, known as the best place in the world to spot the elusive cat, the tiger population has dwindled to 35. Meanwhile, the number of people living next to the park has more than tripled, from 70,000 in 1980 to 250,000 today. The new arrivals have brought construction, logging, and nearly one million grazing livestock.
"But all the government cares about now is call centers, shopping malls and apartments," said Valmik Thapar, known as India's "tiger man" for his conservation work. "That leaves the tiger situation in a miserable mess. So why save the tigers? Because saving the tiger means saving every insect in the forest, and the forest itself, and that's important not to just India but to the world."
In a country with 1.1 billion people, where open land is becoming increasingly crowded, Parliament recently passed legislation that will provide tribal communities with land and building rights in wildlife reserves, an opportunity that could push tigers out of their sanctuaries. Thapar worries that the legislation will also give free rein to timber and tiger poachers, who could hire poverty-stricken forest dwellers to do the work.
In July, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, saying it was alarmed about India's inability to stop the illegal tiger trade.
But some government leaders say the needs of people must be considered. They say the new legislation simply recognizes the rights of traditional tribes over forest land they have occupied for generations. Tribal activists say that India's 700 million desperately impoverished people should be more important than parks visited largely by wealthy tourists from overseas. In some areas just outside the park, they point out, fewer than 3 percent of girls can read, and treatable diseases are still a major cause of death.
Singh this year asked local governments to create a development agency for each tiger reserve. The goal is to increase participation in conservation by encouraging hotels and parks to hire local residents and by hosting more school trips to parks.
"Wherever the local population has come into the picture, the tigers are safer," Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, says.