ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Global wildlife experts and political leaders from 13 countries on Sunday open a meeting aimed at finalizing complex and costly plans to revive the world's tiger population, which has plummeted so sharply that it may be near the point of no return.
Although the fierce and wily tigers may be the epitome of power in their natural habitat, they have seemed nearly helpless against man. The World Wildlife Fund and other experts say only about 3,200 of the big cats remain in the wild, a severe plunge from an estimated 100,000 a century ago.
Their forest habitat is being eaten up by timber operations and construction, while poachers stalk the dwindling tiger populations, killing them for their skins and for body parts prized in Chinese traditional medicine. The wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC said in a report this month that more than 1,000 parts of tigers slain by poachers across Asia had been seized in the past decade.
"The Tiger Summit is our last best chance to ensure a future for these animals in the wild," Ginette Hemley, a WWF vice president, said in a statement Thursday.
The summit, which ends Wednesday, is hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has adroitly used encounters with tigers, polar bears and other wildlife to bolster his image, and was driven by the Global Tiger Initiative which was launched two years ago by World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
The summit intends to approve a wide-ranging program with the goal of doubling the world's tiger population in the wild by 2022 and to produce a declaration of commitment signed by government leaders from al countries that still have tiger populations: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam and Russia.
The summit also will be seeking donor commitments to buttress expenditures by each of the country's governments. A draft of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, expected to be approved at the meeting, estimates the countries will need $330 million in outside funding over the next five years to fulfill the plan. About 30 percent of that estimate would go toward programs to suppress the poaching both of tigers and of the animals they prey on.
For advocates, saving tigers has implications far beyond the emotional appeal of preserving an attractive and thrilling animal.
"Because tigers are apex predators at the top of the food chain in many Asian ecosystems, they are essential to the effective functioning of other parts of these ecosystems," the GTRP draft says. "Protecting tigers and their landscapes also protects a host of other endangered species and their habitats."
Over the past two decades, much has already been done to try to save tigers, but conservation groups say their numbers have continued to fall markedly, by about a third just since 1998.
In part, that decline is because conservation effors have been increasingly diverse and often aimed at improving habitats outside protected areas where tigers can breed, according to a study published in September in the Popular Library of Science Biology journal.
Putin has done much to draw attention to tigers' plight. During a visit to a wildlife preserve in 2008, he shot a female tiger with a tranquilizer gun and helped place a transmitter around her neck as part of a program to track the rare cats.
Later in the year, Putin was given a 2-month-old female Siberian tiger for his birthday. State television showed him at his home gently petting the cub, which was curled up in a wicker basket with a tiger-print cushion. The tiger now lives in a zoo in southern Russia.
Heintz reported from Moscow.