Poaching to supply tiger body parts for the medicine trade is now the principal threat to the animal's survival in the wild, where as few as 5,000 individuals of the world's biggest cat may be left.
To try to halt the tiger's slide towards disappearance, officials from the UN's wildlife trade policing body are to tour the world to look at protection measures in all the tiger "range states", and to talk to ethnic Chinese communities about the threat the medicine trade represents.
They hope their campaign will bring a new sense of urgency to a conservation effort which in many parts of the world is failing.
The officials from CITES, the Swiss-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, will begin in London on Wednesday, where their series of missions will be formally launched by the Environment minister Michael Meacher and the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett.
Britain is closely associated with the initiative as CITES is chaired by a senior British civil servant, Rob Hepworth, who is head of the Environment Department's global wildlife division.
Mr Meacher said yesterday: "We are pleased that the UK is taking the lead in this as it is clearly something that needs to be done urgently. The lights are flashing red in terms of the survival of the tiger."
A century ago there may have been 100,000 tigers in the forests and grasslands of their huge range across Asia from the Caspian Sea to Bali in Indonesia. But in the past 60 years nearly all of the grassland and much of the forest has gone, and with it most of the tigers.
Three sub-species, the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers, are already extinct; the status of other sub-species is critical. According to estimates by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Chinese tigers are down to a pitiful 20 animals in the wild and are "functionally extinct". There are only about 450 Siberian tigers left in Russia's Far East, and 500 Sumatran tigers left on the Indonesian island.
Between 1,100 and 1,800 Indo-Chinese tigers are thought to be scattered through Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; with no more than 4,000 Bengal tigers in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
The world's population may be 7,000 animals, but could well be as low as 5,000. Precise figures are impossible to arrive at, but it is certain that the remaining population is under fierce pressure and shrinking steadily. Destruction of their forest habitat continues to take its toll, but poaching to supply the traditional Chinese medicine trade is the main threat.
Tiger body parts are immensely prized through much of Asia. They are thought to contain powers that can be passed on to those who consume them. But their use is outlawed in 145 countries which are signatories to CITES, including China.
Almost all parts of the animal are used in drugs and potions - even the whiskers, which are said to be a cure for laziness. Ground bone is especially popular in many remedies and is even used in "tiger wine".
Mr Hepworth said: "Traditional Chinese medicine is not going to go away and nor do we want it to. Many hundreds of millions of people depend on it and in most cases it's fine. We just need to ensure it doesn't use tiger parts. There are plenty of substitutes that can be used.
"But it is important that we take the traditional Chinese medicine community with us. We have tried to do that in the UK. It is very important that we keep these people on board."
The CITES officials will be meeting ethnic Chinese communities in a number of countries to raise awareness of the illegal trade, explain its consequences for the tiger and seek co-operation in ending it. They will start by meeting representatives of Britain's own Chinese medicine practitioners on Thursday.
In fact-finding missions to a total of 14 counties, they will also closely examine anti-poaching measures, which in some states are virtually non- existent.
A follow-up series of high-level missions later in the year, headed by Mr Hepworth, will seek to gain the agreement of government ministers for remedial action.
"We must prevent the relentless illegal trade in body parts from driving the tiger to extinction," Mr Meacher said.
Britain's own efforts to do this seem to be working. In 1995, in Operation Charm, a team from Scotland Yard raided 12 medicine shops in the Chinese communities of London, Birmingham and Manchester and found illegal products, mainly tiger parts, in every one: 11 were prosecuted and fined.
But just over a year ago the Environmental Investigation Agency carried out an undercover survey of pharmacies selling traditional Chinese remedies in Japan, the United States, the Netherlands and the UK. Tiger parts were found on sale in Tokyo, Yokohama, Amsterdam and New York, but not in any British city.Reuse content