(HN, November 21, 2010) An unprecedented 13- state summit that aims to double the tigers population by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022 begins in Russia today.
Russian prime minister and self-proclaimed animal lover Vladimir Putin opened his native city to the world's first gathering of leaders from nations where the tiger's free rein has been squeezed ever-tighter by poachers.
"This is an unprecedented gathering of world leaders (that aims) to double the number of tigers," Jim Adams, Vice President for the East Asia and Pacific Region at the World Bank, said at the opening ceremony of the four-day event.
The number of tigers in the wild has dwindled from 100,000 to 3,200 in the past century, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) The main threats to tigers are the destruction of their habitats in Asia - due to economic and industrial expansion - and poachers.
The wildlife charity warns that the tiger could become extinct within the next 12 years unless urgent action is taken.
Poachers represent a huge threat to the tiger's survival. The use of tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicines is widely known, although the ingredient hasn't been listed in official Chinese manuals for pharmaceuticals since 1993. Tiger is also served in high priced restaurants so that millionaires can eat endangered species to demonstrate their wealth.
"It's essential to eliminate poaching," said Adams. "Solutions must begin at the local level. Trans-boundary cooperation must be reinforced."
The summit's Russian hosts said that a global initiative on tigers could provide lessons for other joint environmental pursuits.
The tiger summit will provide an example "for other challenges such as global warming," Russian Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev told the gathering.
The high-profile summit is due to be attended by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and delegations from India and Bangladesh -- the three nations with the largest volume of tiger skin and other organ trafficking.
Russia is the only country to have seen its tiger population rise in recent years. It had just 80 to 100 in the 1960s but now has around 500, with experts praising Putin for taking an active role in the cause.
Putin has personally championed the protection of the Amur Tiger in the country's Far East and was hailed by the Russian media for firing a tranquillizer dart at one of the fabled beasts in 2008.
The conference is expected to tackle the burden of funding a 12-year plan that reaches across the 13 nations. It is also believed to be the world's first gathering of leaders to address the fate of a single species.
But consensus on the need to save the tiger has been hampered by a lack of coordination on the ground to stop the trafficking of tiger parts such as paws and bones -- all prized in traditional Asian medicine.
Apart from Russia, 12 other countries host fragile tiger populations -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.
Experts stress that India and China are by far the biggest players in saving the beast.
India is home to half of the world population while the Chinese remain the world's biggest consumers of tiger products despite global bans.