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Russia hopes plan to save endangered tigers worth more than the sum of their parts

Captive siberian tiger carrying a young cub.

Edwin Giesbers/Edwin Giesbers/WWF

On Sunday, under the glittering chandeliers of St. Petersburg's Konstantin Palace, Russian President Vladimir Putin will welcome emissaries of 12 Asian nations to the first-ever international summit on tiger conservation.

In a world grown properly weary of summiteers and their sonorous rhetoric, this one might actually matter. The future of the planet's most iconic animal, venerated by virtually every culture, is at stake.

A century ago, 100,000 tigers proudly stalked the jungles of Asia. Today, a ragged remnant of 3,200 survives, including about 1,000 breeding females - besieged at every turn by predatory poachers, shrinking habitats, rising sea levels, and the undiminished appetite for their skins, bones, eyes, ears, paws and penises. In the last decade alone, poachers have picked off more than 1,000, the body parts recycled into a thriving black market in talismans, aphrodisiacs, elixirs, wine, hearth rugs - even soup.

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Of the nine tiger subspecies, three - the Javan, Caspian and Bali - are already extinct. Another, the South China, only survives in captivity, and even there in minuscule numbers. If one needed a definition for the term tipping point, the pathetic state of the world's tigers would suffice.

Now, the Global Tiger Initiative, catalyzed by World Bank president Robert Zoellick, is attempting to rally so-called tiger range nations, some 35 conservationist and wildlife groups and the pocketbooks of other countries.

"We're at the low point," concedes Michael Baltzer, Kuala Lampur-based leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Tigers Alive initiative. "We've done as much as we can, but what's been missing is the high-level engagement. Hopefully, the summit will get more heads [of state]to buy into the process."

So far, only one head of state, Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has backed out of attending, to deal with a constitutional debate at home; his Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti will appear in his stead.

If everything goes as planned, the four-day palaver on the banks of the Gulf of Finland will endorse measures aimed at doubling the imperiled tiger population by 2022 - the next Year of the Tiger. With any luck, it may also include agreement on how to fund this ambitious target. The first five-year plan calls for $350-million (U.S.) to combat deforestation, poaching and the market for tiger parts.

If the assembly of presidents and prime ministers cannot reach consensus, or later fails to deliver on commitments, experts say the noble tiger will be extinct in less than two decades, yet another victim of human greed and recklessness.

Nor is it simply Panthera tigris that's at stake. If the world cannot marshal the will to save the tiger, the precincts they inhabit and the rich biodiversity they contain are in jeopardy. The Sumatran tiger roams Indonesia's 18-million-acre peat forests, which hold 36 per cent of the Earth's tropical carbon stores. Curbing deforestation, therefore, saves not only the tiger, but the carbon storage the forests provide.

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And if the beloved tiger is doomed, what animal would be safe?

Summits don't happen by happenstance. The St. Petersburg conclave - being held, not accidentally, in the Chinese Year of the Tiger and the International Year of Biodiversity - is the culmination of two years work, moving the issue up the ladder from field agents to technical experts to civil servants and elected officials.

Last year, WWF Russia CEO Igor Chestin wrote to Mr. Putin suggesting that he host the summit. It was a shrewd move. The President's interest in the tiger is well known. In 2008, he accompanied wildlife researchers to Russia's Ussuri Nature Reserve. At one point, a tigress slipped its harness and started toward a stunned television crew. Wearing camouflage and armed with a tranquilizer gun, Mr. Putin fired, immediately sedating the animal - although some observers later suggested the event had been staged to showcase the Russian leader's prowess. A satellite tracking device was placed around the animal's neck and, in the months afterward, visitors to Mr. Putin's website were able to monitor its progress through the Far East.

According to Barney Long, the WWF's tiger program manager, Mr. Putin "really is the champion of all this. He'd been a huge leader in this process."

There are thought to be about 400 Siberian tigers still roaming the forests of Russia, but like their cousins elsewhere on the continent, they are threatened by forest destruction and poachers. Siberian tigers are said to need a minimum roaming territory of 125 square miles.

To meet the goal of doubling tiger populations in the next decade, member nations would need to conserve 1.2 million square kilometres of forest habitat and 115 inviolable breeding areas, covering about 135,000 square kilometres.

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But there's an implicit dilemma posed by these goals: The larger the habitat, the more difficult to deter poaching - the single greatest threat to the species.

With that in mind, the 115-year-old, New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society thinks the summit's goals are too broad. Rather than aiming to save tigers everywhere, and addressing an entire spectrum of threats, domestic and trans-boundary, the WCS says a better strategy would be to focus on maintaining 42 principal sites harbouring 70 per cent of tigers still left in the wild. It calls this "the 6 per cent solution," since it would effectively ignore 94 per cent of the territory that small numbers of other tigers currently inhabit.

That formula may ensure preservation of tigers, concede World Wildlife Fund officials. But it won't lead to population recovery in significant numbers unless roaming corridors are also expanded. But both sides agree that the sessions in St. Petersburg constitute, in Mr. Baltzer's words, "a watershed moment. If we can't lift the intensity and action with this summit, we never will."

What's a tiger worth?

On Asia's thriving black market, a whole tiger is estimated to be worth about $50,000 (U.S.) - a staggering sum in poverty-gripped regions. With every kill, demand and value rise. Although the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species formally bans commerce in parts and skins, illicit trade continues. Crushed tiger bones, steeped in vats of 38-per-cent-proof rice wine, are used in traditional Chinese medicines, allegedly curing arthritis, rheumatism and conferring sexual potency. In fact, although the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies has discouraged the practice, virtually every part of the tiger continues to be used and openly sold.

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