As Russia hosts an unprecedented summit on saving the wild tiger, much of the attention is focusing on India, home to nearly half of the big cats but also a leading centre for poaching.
Experts here said that despite positive steps, India is struggling to deal with poaching, with poor villagers willing to kill and sell tigers for just 100 dollars and the rangers charged with protecting the animals under-paid and poorly equipped.
"Poaching is the major threat, number two is habitat destruction," said Satya Prakash Yadav, an official with India's environment ministry taking part in the summit of 13 nations in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg.
|An Indian Royal Bengal tiger at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad in June 2010.|
India is home to 1,411 tigers of the estimated 3,200 still living in the wild but also to 54 percent of poaching and trafficking cases. According to a recent report by the Traffic International non-governmental organisation, more than 1,000 tigers have been killed in the last decade in Asia.
"People living around the tiger reserves are always poor and if you come offering them a big price for the tigers they will take it," said Sejal Worah, the director of the World Wildlife Fund's Indian branch.
"The poacher gets only 100 dollars but the price of all the parts could be a 100 or 200 times more than that."
Much of the poaching is fuelled by demand for tiger parts in Thailand, where there are far fewer of the wild cats, she said.
Good laws are in place to protect tigers in India, but enforcement has been lax, said Vivek Menon, the director for Southeast Asia for the International Fund for Animal Protection (IFAW), which has trained more than 7,000 rangers in India, a third of the country's anti-poaching force.
"We have seven years in prison, not fines, if you kill a tiger.... What more do you want? India has very good laws. But the problem is the implementation in such a big country," he said.
"For many years, nobody went to jail. Before, the judiciary never convicted. That has changed in the last five-six years and this is a good step."
India's federal government launched a tiger protection programme in 2007 with several million dollars allocated to urgent measures to cut down on poaching.
Among other efforts, the government recently began hiring retired soldiers to work on tiger reserves.
But Worah said the rangers are working in difficult conditions, hampering their efforts.
"It's difficult and thankless work," she said. "Often they are not paid for months and they are badly equipped. Sometimes they don't even have boots or raincoats."
Another effort has seen Indian authorities displace villages located in reserves to install tigers in the area. India is expected to commit during the summit to creating protected zones for tigers free of infrastructure, roads and people -- a move that is likely to engender controversy.
"In a country like India it is difficult to reserve a zone and to say this is only for tigers and not for anything or anyone else. We don't have the kind of space that Russia has," Worah said.
"Social problems are competing with the tigers. It is a fight every day. But it is not a fight we are losing. We make two steps forward for every step back," Menon said.
Animal-rights groups say the tiger population in India has fallen from 5,000 to fewer than 2,000 in the last five years, despite the allocation of 32,000 square kilometres (12,800 square miles) of sanctuary space.
Still, experts said India has scored some successes in its efforts to save the tiger and they hope the country is on the right track.
"Many of the success stories we talked about even here at the summit are from India," Worah said.
"India is not a bad example, it's just a realistic example," Menon said.