What has been hailed as the most significant meeting ever to discuss the fate of a single nonhuman species is under way in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Conservationists and government officials from the 13 countries where tigers roam have gathered for a four-day "tiger summit" to commit to a plan for fighting the big cats' extinction, led by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Conservationists say because of poaching and deforestation, only 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, less than the number in captivity in Texas. The tiger population is at an all-time low, down from around 100,000 a century ago. Of the remaining tigers, only 1,000 are breeding females, the key to the species' survival.
Tiger experts say that unless drastic measures are taken, tigers could soon be extinct. At the end of the summit, participants are expected to commit to doubling the tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger after 2010 in the Chinese zodiac.
To do that, the countries and conservation groups will commit an estimated $330 million, the bulk of which will come from the World Bank -- which has spearheaded the global tiger initiative -- and the 13 "tiger range" countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Poaching has been fueled by the illegal market for tiger parts, mostly in Asia and especially in China and Vietnam, but found around the world.
"Primarily, it's been for perceived medicinal values -- their products, their bones, their skin, their body parts -- but also the perceived status of what it means to eat a part of a tigeror to wear part of a tiger," said Joe Walston, the Asia director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The tiger's historical range has also been reduced to less than 10 percent of what it once was, thanks to deforestation and urbanization. Where tigers once roamed large swaths of land from Russia to Indonesia, they are now largely confined to small pockets.
Opinions diverge somewhat on precisely where immediate preservation efforts should focus. But there's no debate that the principal initiatives have to encourage more stringent measures to prevent and punish poaching, as well as protecting and expanding the tigers' remaining habitats.
Tiger Breeding Sites Top Priority
A study by the Wildlife Conservation Society argues that so-called "source sites," where tigers still breed, have to be the top priority.
"Of all the strategies that are needed to be able to save the tiger, sources sites are at the heart of them," Walston told ABC News. "Without these source sites and without their tigers being effectively protected, all other strategies will fail."
Most source sites, and 65 percent of the wild tiger population, are in India.
Despite not having wild tigers of its own, the United States has contributed millions to the preservation cause. There had been hopes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would attend the forum (the undersecretary of state is representing the United States at the summit).
Russia and its tiger-loving prime minister have been applauded for their efforts to raise awareness and reverse the tigers' decline. Putin was given a tiger cub for his birthday in 2008, a month after he famously shot a Siberian tiger with a tranquillizer dart as part of a collaring program.
The Siberian, or Amur, tigers are one of nine subspecies of tigers. Three of those are already extinct.
"The complexity in saving the tiger is not great, but the scale of the challenge is," said Wildlife Conservation's Society's Walston. "If we do the basics right, if we support the men and women on the ground to prevent poaching of tigers, then we're going to allow tigers to do what they do naturally, which is to breed and recover."
Putin and the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will address the conference Tuesday.