Just 5,000 tigers exist in the wild, a drop of 10,000 in the past 30 years, according to the Zoological Society of London which is hosting a major international conference today to address the problem.
The decline has accelerated during the past decade despite concerted efforts from conservationists to save the species.
Scientists and conservationists from the society blamed the decline on habitat destruction and, more significantly, on the recent growth in demand for tiger body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
Sarah Christie, the society's tiger co-ordinator, said an increase in per capita incomes in the Far East meant more people could afford traditional herbal medicines, always treated as luxuries, and were buying them to show off their wealth.
The trade of tiger body parts is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) but constitutes a large part of the global wildlife trade. Tiger bones and parts are some of the most commonly found animal products smuggled in to Britain.
"Tiger penis soup is one particular delicacy, although obviously I haven't tried it myself. Some tiger parts have anti-inflammatory and other properties but they are still not as good as an aspirin," she said.
At least 1,900 kilos of tiger bone were exported to Japan from Taiwan in 1990, according to Richard Burge, the society's director-general. "That's the equivalent of 400-500 tigers. The increase in the use of tiger parts in herbal medicine is outweighing any increases in the numbers of tigers we might hope for," he said.
As their populations have shrunk, in-breeding within sub-species has increased, which has heightened the risk of cub mortality and genetic defects. Some sub-species are more at risk than others. The South China tiger is currently closest to extinction with just 20 individuals recorded in the wild. Scientists and conservationists from around the world have gathered to present their latest research to a Tigers 2000 conference today at London Zoo and to discuss how to step up their campaign.
Out of the new research has come a glimmer of hope - researchers in the Way Kambas National Park, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, have recorded a small increase in their tiger population. However, the new figures might be more to do with new recording methods such as infra-red cameras mounted on 45 trees within the park spotting previously unseen tigers, rather than an actual increase in population. Before, researchers relied on footprints to estimate the numbers in the park.
Predicting a continuation of the decline, the society plans to co-ordinate existing tiger sperm and egg banks around the world as part of the fight to save the tiger. Mr Burge said: "There is a chilling phrase in conservation which describes a species which has committed itself to extinction. The tiger has not reached that point. If it had we could all give up."Reuse content