The fabled tiger's struggle against extinction
The mighty tiger's struggle against extinction has received little international notice until becoming the focus of a historic 13-state summit that opens in Russia's imperial capital Sunday.
The fabled beast's numbers have dwindled precipitously over the last century, plunging from 100,000 to just 3,200 today.
They have fallen victim to poachers who skin the majestic animals, selling their internal organs and even paws and whiskers for ancient Asian remedies.
And they have seen humans infringe on their territory, destroying their delicate habitat through industrial expansion, logging and mining.
This grim reality has already spelled the extinction of three tiger subspecies -- the Bali, the Caspian and the Java. The South China tiger meanwhile has not been seen in the wild since 1983.
FIVE SUBSPECIES IN DANGER:
Another five subspecies are endangered: there are less than 500 of the world's biggest tiger, the Amur; 1,700 to 2,000 of its cousin the Bengal; 350 to 700 Indochinese tigers; 400 Sumatra tigers and 200 to 500 Malaysian big cats.
The graceful cats roam free in 12 countries besides Russia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.
This makes the beast into one of the world's sturdiest animals, with its habitat ranging from the steamy jungles of India and Southeast Asia to the icy cedar forests of Russia's Far East and the soaring mountains of Bhutan.
The Amur tiger bears the name of the history-steeped Siberian river that separates Russia and China. The cats run around eight to ten feet (2.4 to three meters) from nose to tail and weigh up to 700 pounds (320 kilograms).
While far more prevalent, its Bengal cousin is slightly smaller, weighing around 350 pounds (160 kilograms) and reaching about eight feet "between the pegs."
POACHING THE BIGGEST THREAT:
Although hunting tigers is strictly prohibited, they are still poached in great numbers in both India and China, which through the centuries have prized the medicinal powers of their bones, paws and whiskers.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that more than 1,000 tigers have been reduced to skin and bone in the past decade.
India, home to half of the world's tigers but also 54 percent of the poaching and trafficking activity, is by far the biggest culprit, according to world monitors.
In a bid to reverse its dire record, India has set up a special 32,000 square kilometre (12,350 square mile) sanctuary for the animal and pumped millions of dollars into a new conservation programme.
But these efforts have fallen well short of their targets: India's tiger population has fallen to 1,411, from the 3,700 estimated to be alive in 2002 and the 40,000 estimated to be roaming free at the time of its 1947 independence.
China for its part remains the world's largest consumer of tiger products despite their official ban, with no tiger parts allowed in Chinese pharmaceuticals since 1993.
But poachers' guns are not the only threat facing tigers. They have also seen their natural habitat shrink around them, with deforestation and infrastructure development slashing their roaming area by 40 percent, according to the WWF.
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 summit host Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, for taking an active role in the cause.
© 2010 AFP