MOSCOW, Nov 19, 2010 (AFP) - In a meeting billed as the final political chance to secure the future of the tiger, Russia Sunday hosts an unprecedented summit of the last 13 states with populations of the fabled beast.
The summit in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg, hosted by Prime Minister and self-proclaimed animal lover Vladimir Putin, is aiming to double the number of tigers living in the wild by 2022.
Due to decades of poaching and habitat destruction, there are currently only 3,200 tigers living in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), compared with 100,000 a century ago.
"Three subspecies have already disappeared and none of the other six are secure," says a draft declaration that is due to be adopted by the heads of government at the summit.
Russia is the only country to have seen its tiger population increase in the last years from 80-100 in the 1960s to around 500 now and experts have hailed Putin for taking an active role in saving the tiger.
"Russia can play here a leading role as a host and as a good example as its tiger population has actually grown," Sabri Zain of TRAFFIC, which monitors the global trade in wild animals and plants, told AFP.
"The important thing here is the attention given to the event by Vladimir Putin so that other heads of government will sit down and listen," he added.
Putin has personally championed the protection of the Amur Tiger in the country's Far East, where he once famously fired a tranquillizer dart at one of the big cats.
But underlining that even the situation in Russia is far from rosy, an Amur Tiger was found dead from gunshot wounds early on November 16 in Russia's Far East in the Khasan district, south of the main regional hub of Vladivostok.
The WWF said in a statement that a criminal inquiry would be opened for illegal hunting although it was possible that the animal had been killed in self-defence.
The November 21-24 summit is due to be attended by five heads of government, including Putin and his Chinese counterpart. The meeting is thought to be the first time world leaders have gathered to discuss the fate of a single species.
While there is now consensus on the need to save the tiger, there is a stark lack of any coordination on the ground to stop illegal trade in tiger parts like whiskers, paws and bones that are prized in traditional Asian medicine.
"Countries cannot fight the tiger trade individually, because of the very nature of the trade, where tiger parts come from one country, are processed in another and consumed in a third," said Zain of TRAFFIC.
Along with Russia, 12 other countries host fragile tiger populations -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.
But experts say by far the key players in saving the tiger are India and China.
India is home to half of the world population, while the Chinese remain the world's biggest consumers of tiger products despite global bans.
"In China, things are going from bad to worse," said Alexei Vaisman of the WWF. "But it is hard for the Chinese authorities, who are fighting against a millennium-old tradition."
Experts meanwhile commend Russia for its far-seeing policies in creating improved tiger reserves which work together with non-governmental ecological groups and border guards.
Vladimir Krever, the coordinator for biodiversity at WWF, said that the current population of 500 tigers in Russia was optimal for the current availability of habitat. Raising numbers to 600 would be "an absolute maximum."
Zain of TRAFFIC described the target of the summit of doubling tiger populations by 2022 as "very ambitious but achievable".
"Proof is Russia, it's a success story as the number of tigers has increased," he said.