NEW DELHI (AP) – The Indian government wants to recruit retired soldiers to patrol tiger sanctuaries in the hopes of saving the last of the cats after an official report confirmed a drastic drop in wild tiger numbers.

Conservationists on Friday praised the decision, saying that at least Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government were finally taking the plight of the beleaguered tiger seriously.

The plan was among a series of proposals presented Thursday by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India to the National Wildlife Board, which Singh chairs, as part of a two-year survey on India’s tigers.

The report confirmed initial findings that there are no more than 1,500 tigers in India’s reserves and jungles – down from about 3,600 just five years ago and an estimated 100,000 a century ago.

It called for appointing a senior police official to head the recently created Wildlife Crime Bureau, set up to halt the killings and punish poachers. The report also recommended speeding up the relocation of villages from within reserves, filling empty park ranger posts and laying out “eco-tourism” guidelines to benefit local populations.

Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, was skeptical of the plan to recruit retired soldiers to beef up forces that patrol sanctuaries. She said her group had found retired soldiers unwilling to join such a project. “They seem quite happy to enjoy their retirement and pension,” she said.

Conservationists said the major breakthrough was in Singh’s reaction to the report.

“The real progress is that the prime minister sat for two hours and listened to us and realized that this is a real problem,” said Wright.

Valmik Thapar, an independent film maker and tiger expert, said the measures could be the “beginning of a new era in wildlife conservation where the government, non-governmental organizations and individual conservationists work together.”

While these efforts could save tigers in sanctuaries, the study said prospects were bleak for those that roamed unprotected jungles and forests.

“One thing this report has found, very alarmingly, is that there are virtually no wild tiger populations outside the reserves,” Wright said.

Alan Rabinowitz, executive director of the Great Cat Program of the International Wildlife Conservation Society, said he thought using retired army officers was an excellent idea.

“One of the problems which we’ve had, globally, in the protection of areas and against poaching, is our normal wildlife guards are not well enough trained to deal in combative situations and too often it’s the guards who get killed,” he said.

Rabinowitz said the Indian government needs to do something radical and fast to protect its tigers. “They have a setup that won’t get better anytime soon,” he said. “The best they can do is protect these areas.”

The majority of tigers that disappeared were killed either by poachers supplying body parts to the lucrative traditional Chinese medicine market or by angry farmers and villagers competing with the tigers for the same habitat.

On Friday, forest rangers were forced to hunt a tigress that had apparently strayed from the Tadoba-Andhari sanctuary in the western state of Maharashtra, killing three people and mauling two others.

“Both humans and tigers are fighting for space. It’s a difficult situation,” said B. Majumdar, a wildlife officer who was coordinating the hunt.

Angry villagers stoned the rangers’ vehicle, demanding they kill the beast.

“You must get rid of it or we will kill it,” said Ganesh Deshmukh, a farmer. “We are scared to go to our fields and can’t send our children to school.”

Majumdar said rangers had tried several methods to drive away the tiger and were now going to try to trap or tranquilize the beast.

“Shooting is the last resort,” he said.

Rabinowitz said even though the Indian government has not been doing enough for many years, he does not think the Indian tiger is doomed.

“If they’re protected from being killed and food is protected from being killed,” he said, “the tigers will come back in numbers.”

Associated Press Writer Carley Petesch contributed to this story from New York.

AP-ES-11-02-07 2222EDT

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