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Coal mining threatens India's dwindling tiger population, report warns

A tiger is tranquilized by forestry officials before being pulled out of a deep well in India. TODAY.com's Dara Brown reports.

BHUBANESWAR, India -- Coal mining for electricity generation is the biggest threat to India's tigers, a report by environmental activists Greenpeace warned, demanding a moratorium on clearances for new mines just days after massive blackouts highlighted power shortages.

A hot-button issue in India, tiger conservation pits the desire to preserve wildlife against the development needs of a country that in March witnessed its slowest economic growth rate in nine years and where hundreds of millions continue to live below poverty line.

India is home to more than half of the world's tigers, with 1,706 living in the wild, compared to 100,000 at the turn of the last century. The International Union for Conservative of Nature estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 tigers live in the wild anywhere in the world.

Report warns of 'stark' situation
The emerging Asian power has witnessed an unprecedented hike in new coal mines and coal-run power plants in the past five years, placing the lives of many endangered animals at risk, the report released late Wednesday said.

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Calling the situation "stark," Greenpeace says coal mining has already started affecting tigers in many areas such as Chandrapur in the state of Maharashtra.

"But there are other locations where the problem is already, or will soon be, equally severe," Greenpeace campaigner Ashish Fernandes told Reuters.

Reeling from the two blackouts this week and an ongoing shortage of power, the Indian government is under great pressure to mine more coal to meet a soaring demand for energy.

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Greenpeace called for greater investment in renewable energy, especially wind and solar power.

Extensive coal reserves
Frequent power outages are seen as a major constraint to faster economic growth, putting pressure on the Indian government to permit the development of coal mines.

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"The government continues to clear coal power projects and mines way beyond requirements, often overriding the objections of its officials and committees. We are asking for an immediate moratorium on all new forest clearances, until the criteria for determining forests off limits to mining are agreed upon and implemented, with proper public consultation and input," The Times of India quoted National Board for Wildlife member Biswajit Mohanty as saying.

Trains and subways ground to a halt as more than 600 million people in India faced a blackout after half the national power grid shut down. Experts say the outdated grid cannot keep up with the country's energy needs. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

India sits on the world's fifth-largest coal reserves, and produces the most after China and the United States.

The report says if India continues its dependence on coal to meet its energy needs, the destruction already seen in these areas will multiply across much of central India, which has 80 percent of the country's coal reserves and 35 per cent of its tigers.

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Tourism banned in 'core' tiger habitats
Last month, in a move to protect the endangered cats, the Supreme Court in India ordered a ban on tourism in "core zones" of more than 40 of the country's tiger reserves.

The order will effectively extinguish tourism at some reserves, while hardly touching other ones at all, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

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At the approximately 150-square-mile Ranthambore National Park, in the northwest of the country, tourism was expected virtually to cease altogether. The reserve, home to around 30 tigers, attracts an estimated 70,000 foreign and 150,000 domestic tourists last year, according to the Journal.

Aditya Singh / AFP - Getty Images, file

A tiger yawns at the Ranthambore National Park, in India's northwestern Rajasthan state, in January 2004.

But under the new ruling, tourists would effectively be barred from the park and revenues would dry up, the paper reported.

The government has for decades been fighting a losing battle to conserve tiger numbers against poaching, which feeds a lucrative cross-border trade in tiger body parts, and the loss of natural habitat.

Read the full Greenpeace report on tigers in India

Reuters and NBC News staff contributed to this report.

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