Poachers and economic growth are endangering the tiger's livelihood. In Bangkok, police and customs authorities from countries home to wild tigers have agreed to tighten controls to curb the trade in tiger parts.
Countries still home to wild tigers have agreed to improve cross-border cooperation in attempts to curb an increasingly sophisticated illegal trade in the endangered animals.
Police and customs heads from the 13 'tiger range' countries met in the Thai capital Bangkok to exchange ideas on combating the trade and to coordinate with wildlife organizations.
"The tale of the tiger is not simply about conservation, it is also about crime," said Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"It concerns transnational organized crime, high profits, widespread corruption, money laundering, fraud, counterfeiting, and violence."
Wildlife monitors say sophisticated poaching networks are driving tigers to extinction in the wild.
The Center for International Policy, a US think tank, estimates the illegal trade of animal products to be worth between $8 billion and $10 billion (between 6 billion and 8 billion euros), second in value only to the illicit drug trade.
Supply chains can involve dozens of individuals and stretch through various communities, said John E. Scanlon, head of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
"The fight to save the tiger extends well beyond its habitat," Scanlon said.
"The actual site where a tiger is poached can be the start of a long chain of criminality…Anti-poaching personnel acting alone can do little to break these links further up that chain," he added.
A symbolic animal
In most Asian cultures the tiger is a symbol of strength. Ironically, the animal is so endangered that it needs extensive protection.
In the past, tigers inhabited an area that stretched from today's Pakistan to Russia's far east - with an estimated population of 100,000 a hundred years ago. Today, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates there are only about 3,200 tigers left in the wild, mostly found in isolated areas that zoologists call "island populations."
The smallest of these island populations consists of 30 South China tigers. It could be the next species to go extinct.
"The tiger is more endangered today than ever before," said WWF's Roland Gramling.
"If we lose an emblematic species like the tiger, mankind will be acknowledging that it is prepared to lose any animal on the planet," said UNODC's Fedotov. "By our actions, we must show that we have the capacity, the ability and the commitment to protect other species living on the planet."
Animal parts as medicine
In some ways, the tiger's strength has been its downfall.
In some Asian countries, various tiger parts are believed to be effective against a range of ailments: the snout for epilepsy, the bones for arthritis and the whiskers for tooth decay.
A black market for tiger products is growing, especially in China where rising affluence is fueling demand.
Alongside tiger products, other lucrative animal parts include ivory from African elephants, the fur of Tibetan antelopes and rhinoceros horns.
According to Paul Unschuld, a Chinese medicine expert at the Charite university hospital in Berlin, animal products of this kind are (at least officially) no longer used in Chinese medicine.
He said no traditional doctor in China today would prescribe tiger bones. Yet the belief in the healing powers of various animals still persists in many Asian societies.
Unschuld blamed demand on "people who have too much money and feel the need to improve their lives with such exotic products."
According to the WWF, most wild tigers can be found in India, which is thought to be home to 1,500 of the animals. Another 1,000 are spread throughout South East Asia and small populations can be found in China and Russia.
Apart from hunting, the tiger is also threatened by shrinking habitats.
Tigers' habitats range from the mangrove swamps of Bangladesh to the coniferous forests of the Russian taiga, from tropical to extremely cold.
What they all share is a need for space to consume enough prey. In most places other than Russia, that space is shrinking as Asia's growing populations seek new farmland.
Animal protection organizations are attempting to save the tiger's environment by means of gamekeepers and reforestation programs.
They employ methods such as cameras and tracking paw prints in the snow.
The Global Tiger Recovery Program, a comprehensive 12-year strategy endorsed by all 13 tiger range countries, aims to double the population of wild tigers by 2022, which happens to be the next year of the tiger.
If these efforts fail, the tiger will one day only exist in zoos.
There are already more tigers in zoos and sanctuaries than in the wild. Up to 10,000 can be found in private zoos in the US alone.
Author: Mathias Bölinger/ew, Sarah Steffen
Editor: Nathan Witkop
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