World leaders scramble for funds to save the tiger

SAINT PETERSBURG, Nov 21, 2010 (AFP) - World leaders sought Sunday to come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to save the tiger from extinction and double the big cat's numbers by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.

Russian prime minister and self-proclaimed animal lover Vladimir Putin opened his native city to the world's first gathering of leaders from 13 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 global tiger initiative is an example of balanced economic development with nature preservation."

Decades of tiger part trafficking and habitat destruction have slashed the roaming tiger's number from 100,000 a century ago to just 3,200 today.

AFP - A file picture taken on February 19, 2008 shows Indian forest workers watching as a rescued tigress leaps into the river Sundarikati on being released from a cage at Sunderbans, some 150 kms south of Kolkata, India.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns that the species is on course for outright extinction by the next Year of the Tiger under the Chinese calendar.

The tiger rescue effort's success "depends on the political will of the countries that support it", WWF Director General James Leape told the conference.

The World Bank estimates that it will take at least 350 million dollars to support joint efforts to fight poachers and introduce incentives for nature preservation over the next five years.

But the summit's Russian hosts voiced optimism that the four-day conference would be crowned with success and provide a lesson for other joint environmental campaigns.

The tiger summit will be an example "for other challenges such as global warming", Russian Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev told the gathering.

The high-profile meeting 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.

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 tiger 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."

Jia Zhibang, the head of China's forestry administration, admitted Saturday that Chinese authorities had allowed "some exceptions" to a 1993 law that banned the use of tiger parts in Chinese medicine.

But he insisted that China was ready to line up behind the new emergency rescue plan.

"We are ready to cooperate with the World Bank and the other countries seeking to save the tiger," the Chinese minister said.

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.

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