A last chance to save the tiger

As hunting and loss of habitat push the world's biggest cat to the brink of extinction, the 13 'tiger nations' are gathering in Russia determined to halt its calamitous decline
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The Independent Online

The remains were discovered in the woods early on Tuesday, thousands of miles from Moscow, near Russia's distant eastern border with North Korea. A single bullet had proved fatal, and by evening the country's Interior Minister had been tasked with mounting a thorough investigation and severely punishing the culprits. The victim? Not a muck-raking journalist, or a local mafia boss, but a Siberian tiger, one of only about 450 left in the far east of Russia.

It was a gruesome reminder of the severity of the threat to wild tigers. This weekend, the leaders of the world's 13 "tiger nations", including Russia, China and India, are to meet. Billed as the last chance to save the wild tiger, the St Petersburg summit will be hosted by the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and will launch a programme to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.

There are now just 3,200 tigers left in the wild, compared to about 100,000 a century ago, and wildlife experts say that if serious measures are not taken, the tiger could die out within a generation. "This summit may be the last chance for the tiger," said Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, which is coordinating the programme to be presented at the summit. "Tigers are vanishing, due to illegal poaching, trafficking and loss of habitat."

Mr Zoellick said financial and legal measures were required. "We need to see poachers behind bars, not tigers," he said, but added that there was also a need for community programmes to teach people the value of tigers, and conservation programmes to safeguard tiger habitats.

Poaching is still a major problem, usually aimed at servicing the black market in China, where tiger parts are in great demand for use in traditional medicines and as aphrodisiacs. A tiger skin can fetch anything up to £15,000 on the Chinese black market, and the bones go for more than £500, to be used as medicines or alleged aprodisiacs.

Experts were divided on whether the target of doubling tiger populations over the next 12 years is achievable. "The goal is realistic, but achieve it, there needs to be a lot of political will and financial support," said Vladimir Krever of the World Wildlife Fund's Moscow Office.

Of all the tiger countries, Russia has been the most successful at breathing new life into its tiger community, with the Siberian tiger rescued from the brink of extinction to a population of about 450 in the Russian Far East that has remained stable for a decade.

Russia's tigers live in the forests along Russia's borders with North Korea and China, which was where the dead tiger was found this week. In the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, there is even a Tiger Street, and a monument to tigers will be unveiled tomorrow to coincide with the St Petersburg forum.

Siberian tigers, the largest subspecies, can grow to over two metres in length and 400kg in weight, and occasionally become a threat to local residents. Just last week, in the city of Nakhodka, a tiger veered into a residential area in search of food and ended up mauling a dog to death. Locals have been advised not to walk dogs in the woods until the tiger has been found.

The appearance of tigers in urban areas speaks to a growing problem for conservationists, the destruction of traditional tiger habitats, and the encroachment of human infrastructure onto what were once tiger-hunting grounds. "The problems facing tigers vary from country to country," says Mr Krever. "But it's fair to say that while poaching still remains a huge problem, especially in the Asian countries, the bigger problem is now that the traditional habitats of tigers are being destroyed."

Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam all have small tiger populations, varying in size from just a few remaining specimens up to about 300. Some experts in these countries expressed scepticism that the goals of the summit were manageable. "It sounds very ambitious and positive that we will have 6000 tigers in two decades, but tell me how will they do it without being able to save the existing ones?" Belinda Wright, director of Wildlife Protection of India, told Agence France Press. "Patchy intelligence-gathering techniques across Asia and lack of cross-border commitment to end the sale of tiger parts has led to a collective failure."

In India, which has the largest tiger population of any country, the population of wild tigers has fallen to 1,411, compared to 3,700 less than a decade ago, and 40,000 at the time that the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. Since 2007, a new tiger protection force has been introduced in the country, and promised millions of pounds of funding for a new anti-poaching programme. The government has even moved villagers out of tiger-reserve areas to allow the beasts to roam more freely. But the results have been mixed.

That this summit will attract a large number of heads of state, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, is extremely important, say the organisers. "[Mr Putin] has taken a personal interest in trying to increase their numbers," said Mr Zoellick. "If it weren't for Prime Minister Putin I don't think we'd have the level of heads of government that we're having put this together."

Mr Putin is known for his fondness for the wide range of wild animals to be found in Russia, an interest that often manifests itself in televised stunts designed to boost his "macho man" image, and appeal to Russian voters. He has been pictured shooting a tracking device onto a whale with a crossbow, seeking out a polar bear in the Arctic ice, and riding horses through the taiga, and the Siberian tiger has not been spared his attention either.

In 2008, during a visit to a tiger reserve in the Russian Far East, a tiger apparently advanced on the Russian Prime Minister and television crew that had travelled with him. Mr Putin, according to the reports, fired an accurate shot with a tranquiliser gun to neutralise the animal. Mr Putin stroked the unconscious tiger while it was fitted with an electronic tracking device, and Russian media have reported that the female has since given birth to two cubs.

Aside from the suspicion that Mr Putin's animal encounters are cheap publicity stunts, campaigners agree that the attention given to the issue from the top can only help. "Having commands come from right at the top of government forces those agencies and structures that need to implement measures to do so," says Mr Krever of the WWF.

Mr Zoellick, of the World Bank, said: "Ultimately, we need to find ways that people can benefit more from live tigers than dead ones." He added that given that every child across the world knows from a young age how endangered the tiger is, it sends a bad signal if efforts to save the creature in the wild fail. "If we can't save the tiger, what is the likelihood that we'll be able to save other species?"