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'Last Chance for the Tiger,' Says World Bank President

A young Siberian tiger. In August, a drugged, two-month-old tiger cub even smaller than this one was discovered stuffed into a woman's suitcase at the Bangkok airport, as she tried to board a plane bound for Iran. That tiger-smuggling attempt was foiled, but a new report shows that many succeed. (Image credit: David Lawson/WWF-Canon.)

World leaders, conservation groups and major donors are gearing up for a four-day conference to find a workable global strategy to rescue tigers from extinction.

On the eve of next week's Tiger Summit in Russia, World Bank President Robert Zoellick spoke with reporters about the upcoming forum, hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the World Bank in St. Petersburg.

Tigers are critically endangered. Only about 3,200 of the iconic cats still survive in the wild, and their numbers have continued to decline in the forests of the 13 Asian countries where they still roam free. Only six of the nine recognized subspecies of tiger still survive.

"This summit may be the last chance for the tiger," Zoellick said during a teleconference. "Tigers are vanishing."

Zoellick is the man behind the Global Tiger Initiative, a project that has brought together key players from the international community since 2008. Next week's forum marks the culmination of the project, and it is the first time representatives from all 13 tiger range countries will meet.

Despite recent national and international efforts to save tigers, the big cats are disappearing outside of captivity. Habitat destruction plays a major role, but it is the continued illegal slaughter of wild tigers that has had a particularly devastating effect in recent years, Zoellick said.

"We need to see poachers behind bars," he said, "not tigers."

Criminal syndicates sell valuable skins, bones, claws and even tiger meat on a flourishing global black market, and demand for tiger parts for amulets, showy private collections, and, in particular, traditional medicine, remains strong.

In the last decade, authorities in 11 of the tiger range countries have seized the remains of more than 1,069 tigers; those numbers don't include the rest of the world, or the illegal tiger parts that have avoided detection.

Decreasing the demand for tiger parts by educating the public has been a consistent goal throughout the last two years, Zoellick said.

Several celebrities have gotten on board, lending famous faces and voices to the fight against the grim trafficking of tiger parts. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio has been a vocal supporter.

Perhaps more important for audiences in tiger range countries, action hero and Hong-Kong native Jackie Chan has starred in several public service announcements warning against the purchase of any products purported to contain tiger parts.

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In addition to pointing out contributions from Hollywood, Zoellick praised Putin's role in the upcoming meeting, and said the Russian prime minister's active interest in the tiger's plight acted as a catalyst, bringing other world leaders to the table. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao may be among the heads of state attending the summit, Zoellick said.

However, Zoellick said, although political will on the highest level must indeed be harnessed, it is involvement on the ground by locals in the countries where tigers dwell that may matter most in deciding the tiger's fate.

"Outsiders can't do this for people," Zoellick said. "If you don't have local ownership, it won't work."

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.