By Sumali Moitra
SAZNEKHALI, India (Reuters) - One of the world's largest tiger census operations -- in the Sunderbans reserve in eastern India -- ended this week with officials saying the number of big cats has not fallen since the last count in 1999.
India has the largest tiger population in the world but their number has fallen to 3,500 from about 4,300 just 11 years ago.
Conservationists estimate that 200 to 300 tigers are dying every year in India due to poaching and development projects.
Two years ago there were 254 tigers at the Sunderbans and 30 in adjoining areas of the delta region on the Bangladesh border where the Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal.
In the week-long census which ended on Friday, over 300 people scoured the swampy Sunderbans landscape, crisscrossed by creeks and tiny tributaries of the Ganges, in search of tiger foot prints, normally visible during low tide periods.
``We have collected 700 pugmarks (footprints), including 25 of cubs, in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve during the census,'' Atanu Kumar Raha, West Bengal's chief conservator of forests, told reporters at Saznekhali, 62 miles south of Calcutta.
Twenty-three teams had fanned out across the salty creeks and dozens of islands in 72 boats. They used fiberglass vests, helmets, rifles and firecrackers to protect themselves against the Sunderbans tiger, known for being man-eaters.
The data had to be analyzed further but the number of tigers seemed to be the same as in 1999, Raha said.
He said there were 96 males, 131 females and 27 were cubs out of a total 254 Royal Bengal tigers in 1999 in the 2,585-sq-km Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.
Raha said two tigers were killed in the Sunderbans this year, probably by villagers in nearby areas. ``It is difficult to stop poaching by villagers living close by unless their economic conditions improve. But we are taking steps to prevent poaching.''