Wild tigers have been offered a lifeline by countries where they still roam. The countries have agreed to work together to double the tiger population within 12 years. Officials from 13 countries gathered in Bali agreed to increase law enforcement to protect the tigers and preserve their habitats across Asia.
A Sumatran tiger roars in protest at his captors from the Indonesian forestry department. The animal had rampaged through villages and palm oil plantations in search of food, killing four farmers. After months in captivity, the cat was released into a Sumatran national park.
In an ongoing battle for territory between humans and wild tigers, tigers are the biggest losers. Rapidly shrinking habitats and poaching are decimating their populations.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates the number of wild tigers has declined by 40 percent in the past decade, to about 3,200 animals with only 1,000 actively breeding females.
In an effort to arrest this slide into extinction, leaders from 13 tiger nations gathered this week in Bali to draft a declaration on conservation, as part of the Global Tiger Recovery Program. The program is led by the World Bank and a coalition of international non-profit organizations. The centerpiece of the nations' commitment is an ambitious plan to double the number of wild tigers by 2022.
Underscoring the immensity of this challenge, several countries said the goal is unrealistic.
Indian delegation leader S. P. Yadav says his country will focus on stabilizing tiger numbers in existing conservation areas.
"We are the largest, tiger-range country," said S. P. Yadav. "We have around 1,500 tigers in the wild; so almost 50 percent of tigers are in India. We have identified 39 tiger reserves, covering an area of around 32,000 square kilometers. Within this number of tigers and the area, we are facing the problem of tiger-man conflict, and in some areas, it is a very serious issue. So there is very little scope in further enhancing the area to accommodate more tigers in our country."
The Wildlife Conservation Societies' vice president for conservation and science, John Robinson, says is it possible to double the number of tigers as planned.
"Within protected areas we could increase overall tiger numbers probably by 50 to 60 percent, and the tigers within those protected areas would still not reach the carrying capacity of that habitat," said John Robinson. "And that gives an ability to bring these numbers back rather dramatically. Across broader tiger landscapes, if protection was put into place, if we could control the illegal hunting, we could bring back very significant tiger numbers"
Conservationists agree poaching presents the greatest threat to tiger populations. Poaching and the international trade in tigers and tiger parts is increasing across the region.
John Sellers heads the enforcement office of the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
"I think if you had looked at this area 10 to 15 years ago, you would have found that a lot of the demand was taking place amongst Asian ethnic communities in either North America and Europe," said John Sellers. "That really has disappeared now. Instead, I think the market is now amongst the wealthy in parts of Asia, particularly China, where they have the money to pay for the genuine article. There are undoubtedly practitioners with the contacts to acquire this. I remember speaking to a practitioner in Thailand a few years ago who told me he had traveled to the border with Myanmar in order to purchase genuine tiger bones."
The sale of tiger parts is prohibited in most tiger countries and the penalty for poachers in China is death. But law enforcement within countries and across national boundaries remains weak and disorganized.
In recent years new markets for tiger products have emerged. Some animal parks in China openly sell tiger bone wine, just one product spurring the establishment of tiger-breeding farms.
John Sellers says in some parts of China and Tibet a revival of old traditions is driving the market for tiger pelts.
"From what I understand in Tibet, it was traditional for warriors who had been brave in battle to be presented with a small piece of animal skin, such as a tiger or leopard - a snow leopard - just as the way a soldier would be in the West might be presented with a medal," he said. "And so what had been a traditional practice using small parts of skin, then just grew into this situation where they began to build huge panels of tiger and leopard skin into these chubas, the traditional jackets that the local communities wear there."
Early estimates suggest the cost of implementing the global tiger project will be more than $350 million, and more if the target of doubling tiger numbers within 12 years is to be met.
World Bank Global Tiger Initiative Director, Keshav Varma, says tiger nations have some capacity for funding tiger conservation, but wealthy nations will have to contribute.
"This sector is extremely poorly resourced," said Keshav Varma. "It does not have money for minimum sustainable management. So we need more resources. And I think this is again an opportunity for global leaders to really understand the value of ecosystems."
Included in the draft declaration was a commitment from tiger countries to collaborate and coordinate efforts to protect tigers and their habitats across national boundaries and to improve enforcement of anti-poaching and trafficking laws.
The Bali meeting's draft declaration will be presented to government leaders for ratification at a September summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.