The fate of the world's 3,500 wild tigers is the theme at a conference in Russia this week. Leaders from the 13 nations with wild tigers are meeting amid claims that the animals could be extinct within a dozen years.
Wild tigers are becoming harder and harder to find
Leaders from 13 nations began meeting in Russia on Sunday to discuss the fate of the world's 3,500 remaining wild tigers.
It's the first time that the heads of government of so many nations will meet to try to save one species.
"This is an unprecedented gathering of world leaders [that aims] to double the number of tigers," Jim Adams, vice president for the East Asia and Pacific Region at the World Bank, said at the opening ceremony.
"The global tiger initiative is an example of balanced economic development with nature preservation."
Hosted by Russian Prime Minister, and self-proclaimed animal lover, Vladimir Putin, the four-day St. Petersburg summit aims to double the number of tigers living in the wild by 2022.
That is the same year the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) has said tigers could become extinct if nothing was done to protect them.
Compared to the some 100,000 wild tigers estimated to have roamed the world about a century ago, decades of poaching and habitat destruction have left only about 3,500 tigers living in the wild, according WWF statistics.
"Three subspecies have already disappeared and none of the other six are secure," according to a draft declaration due to be published at the summit.
Without drastic conservation measures, exhibits in zoos around the world could become the only places left to see these magnificent big cats. It has been more than 20 years, for example, since a tiger has been spotted on the Indonesian island of Java.
Considerable preservation efforts are necessary to keep tigers from extinction
Russia 's lead
Russia is the only country to have seen its tiger population increase in recent years, from between 80 and 100 specimens in the 1960s to around 500 today.
Experts have hailed Putin, who was famously photographed tranquilizing an Amur tiger to be fitted with a tracking collar, for taking an active role in saving tigers.
"Russia can play here a leading role as a host and as a good example as its tiger population has actually grown," Sabri Zain of TRAFFIC, which monitors the global trade in wild animals and plants, told the AFP news agency.
Conservationists are convinced that hope remains.
A US study identified 42 sites where aggressive and immediate intervention would save tiger populations, according to Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.
"These are the sites where not only are there breeding tigers, but they have potential to repopulate a larger landscape and have conservation infrastructure for us to be confident that these are places we can protect," he told Deutsche Welle.
Despite consensus on the need to save the tiger, there is a stark lack of any coordination on the ground to stop illegal trade in tiger parts like whiskers, paws and bones that are prized in traditional Asian medicine.
Successful conservation is always a multi-pronged effort, ranging from habitat protection to safe-guarding against inbreeding, Walston said.
But in the case of tigers, it is first and foremost about preventing the animals from being killed by poachers.
"These are organized commercial poachers, who are parts of networks, ranging across nations to organize and target killing of tigers and other high commercially valuable species," he said.
"It's for everything from somebody who wants a tiger head on wall or a rug on floor to people who think they will be a better performer in bed, to people who think it will cure them of certain diseases."
The Russian summit represents a new level of international commitment to tigers
India and China - both among the 13 nations at the meeting that include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam - are regarded as the key players in saving the tiger.
India is home to half of the world population, while the Chinese remain the world's biggest consumers of tiger products, despite global bans.
Walston said the four-day summit in Russia represents an international commitment to tigers that could go a long way in their preservation.
"This has the potential to be the most important meeting for a non-human species ever," he said. "It is a remarkable chance not only to put tigers on political map but for us to be able to identify where and how to put our combined efforts."
Author. Madeleine Amberger, Sean Sinico (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Nathan Witkop