Even so, most Indian tigers are not killed by bullets. Through foreign aid programs originating in the U.S. and Europe, large quantities of dieldrin, DDT and aldrin have been supplied to Indian farmers for agricultural use. The farmers soon learned that cow carcasses spread with these poisons were perfect tiger bait. Tigers die in agony two to three weeks after absorbing them, as do the vultures, jackals and leopards which share the feast. Poison, too, is the chief weapon of tiger poachers, who can get up to $135 for a good skin.
In the face of all this, not only has the tiger dwindled in numbers. It has also retreated—to Nepal and the foothills of the Himalayas and to the great river deltas, especially to the humid swamps of the Sunderbans, where the Ganges and Brahmaputra meet the sea. Here Mountfort traveled in 1966 to survey the possibility of establishing a Sunderbans tiger reserve. In almost 500 square miles of jungle interlaced with a maze of waterways, there were said to be 300 tigers remaining, but a count by Mountfort indicated that a more realistic figure would be 100. He found many ecological problems, also. Almost all the swamp deer and bison had been killed by hunters, and the tigers had turned to wild boar, axis deer and the occasional human. The big problem with these tigers, says Mountfort, is not just that they eat people but pass on the tendency to their offspring.
Mountfort has now fully planned the reserve on behalf of the Pakistan government and the World Wildlife Fund and is hopeful that the latter's 1970 appeal for $60,000 to save the tiger will succeed. The money is needed to reintroduce small game to the Sunderbans to wean the tigers away from their man-eating habits, to send local wardens for training in Europe and America and to provide them with fast, radio-equipped launches to control poaching. The Indian government may well tighten up its regulations, too. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Gandhi, opened the IUCN's last meeting at New Delhi and afterward sent for the papers on the tiger debate.
And up in the beautiful feudal kingdom of Nepal, where the big cat still has a stronghold in the Terai forest area, Panthera tigris tigris has another ally. This is King Mahendra, who until two years ago was himself an enthusiastic tiger hunter. Then he was struck down by a heart attack while on a tiger shikar and had to lie in the machan for a day until they Hew a heart specialist out from the U.S.
Now the king no longer shoots tigers. And there are indications that he may soon declare his personal tiger-hunting reserves to be sanctuaries for the species. If he does, it will be an important stage in the campaign to prevent the Bengal tiger from dwindling to a shabby remnant in zoos and circuses.