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Are India, China driving tigers to extinction?

A Bengal tiger cools off in a small pond at Van Vihar sanctuary in Bhopal, India. 

NEW DELHI — The tiger population of India will vanish within a handful of years, and governments in India and China have not done enough to stem the rapid decline, environmentalists warned Wednesday.

Markets for tiger skins and other pelts are flourishing in Chinese-controlled Tibet a year after they were first exposed, said representatives of two environmental agencies who secretly filmed the trade there.

Pictures taken in Tibet and shown at a news conference Wednesday featured dozens of tiger and leopard skins openly on sale, while in others, Chinese police officers laugh and pose with people wearing illegal costumes made of tiger skins.

The groups — the Wildlife Protection Society of India and the international Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit British-based group — laid the blame at the hands of the Indian and Chinese governments for failing to stop the trade.

"In China the police have decided to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of tigers in India," said Belinda Wright, the director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

India, meanwhile, has not put together an effective force to combat poaching after 12 years of talking about it, she said.

"It is the politics in India that is killing the tiger, the petty agendas and personal rivalries," she said.

Poaching has caused India's tiger population to drop sharply and seriously threatens the species' survival. The U.S. National Geographic Society estimated in 2001 that only 5,000 to 7,000 Bengal — or Indian — tigers existed in the wild, about half in India.

However, conservationists believe the official estimates of tigers in the wild are grossly exaggerated and that the true figure may be closer to 2,000 — or as little as several hundred.