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DiCaprio, Putin and the all-star plot to save tigers

The unlikely pairing of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio emerged this week as they became figureheads in the battle to save the tiger at a summit in St Petersburg.

The forum was described as the "last chance" for the world's biggest cat. Mr Putin hosted the conference to discuss a World Bank proposal for a tiger-saving initiative. It was the first time global leaders have met specifically to talk about saving an endangered species.

The goal is to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. Currently there are just 3,200 wild tigers, down from over 100,000 a century ago. Stocks of the animal have been depleted due to poachers, who sell their skins and body parts at markets in China and other Asian countries, and by urbanisation destroying their natural habitats.

Mr DiCaprio, a board member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), travelled to St Petersburg for the forum and pledged $1m (£634,000) of his own money to the organisation's tiger-conservation programmes. The actor recently visited Nepal and Bhutan, touring tiger habitats with WWF experts and local anti-poaching authorities.

The forum, which ended yesterday, attracted leaders from most of the 13 countries where tigers are found in the wild, including the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The delegates pledged to spend a combined total of $350m over the next five years. Mr Putin quoted Mahatma Gandhi in addressing the forum: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

The WWF's director general, Jim Leape, said: "Here is a species that is literally on the brink of extinction. If we cannot succeed now, if current trends continue, by 2022 we will have only scattered remnants of the populations left."

But activists from conservation groups said that the success of the agreed package will depend on how well the measures are enforced. John Sellar, the chief enforcement officer for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, said that it was imperative to set up a consortium to fight poaching and smuggling.

"The key thing is enforcement," he told Reuters. "The situation is now so serious that if we don't get enforcement very soon then the money that we're spending in other areas, one could almost say, is flushing down the toilet."

Mr Putin paid special thanks to Mr DiCaprio, saying that he had forced his way to St Petersburg "as if he was going across the front line". The American actor had been on a plane that had to return to New York due to engine failure, so he then took a private plane.

Mr Putin said that not everyone would be brave enough to have taken another flight after the first incident. "In Russia, we call this 'a real man'," said the Prime Minister, who himself is fond of portraying a fearless, macho image to Russian voters. Some of the stunts used to bolster his image have involved tigers – in the past Mr Putin has shot a full-grown female tiger with a tranquilliser gun to place a tracking collar on her and he was given a tiger cub for his 56th birthday. That animal is now living in a zoo in southern Russia.