Putin warns tigers 'close to catastrophe'
The plight of the world's last wild tigers "is close to catastrophe", Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Tuesday told an unprecedented summit aiming to save the animal from extinction.
He said that the world's population of wild tigers had declined by a factor of 30 over the last century to 3,200 individuals while their habitat area was only seven percent of what it was before.
"The situation of the tiger is close to catastrophe," Putin told the global tiger summit in Saint Petersburg, the first ever meeting of world leaders devoted to saving the fabled beast.
"It is a tragic and deplorable result," said the Russian strongman, who has personally championed protecting Russia's remaining population of wild tigers in its Far East.
Putin underlined the importance of the meeting, which aims to agree a global programme pledging to double the numbers of tigers in the wild by 2022.
"We are not thinking about upcoming elections but about future generations, to whom we should leave what we have admired," Putin told an audience of top officials and heads of government including Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
"No-one can reproach us for talking rubbish, when the heads of government have met to speak about a big cat," he added.
Putin, known worldwide for his tough-guy antics, has made no secret of his love for tigers, famously fixing a radio collar to a wild tiger in the Far East of Russia in 2008.
"Nature has sent us calls of alarm in the hope of being heard," he added.
The summit received a high-profile boost earlier when it emerged that Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio pledged one million dollars to save the tiger, and was scheduled to attend the meeting.
"Leonardo DiCaprio today committed one million dollars to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for urgent tiger conservation efforts," the WWF said in a statement.
The WWF also confirmed reports that "DiCaprio will also attend this week's summit." It was not immediately clear whether he had already arrived in Saint Petersburg.
Poaching, often in pursuit of tiger parts destined for the lucrative Chinese medicinal market, and habitat destruction have caused the drastic weakening of the world's tiger population over the last years.
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, a success seen as helped by Putin's support of the animal.
Along with Russia, 12 other countries host fragile tiger populations -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.
© 2010 AFP