Later this month, heads of state and diplomats from 11 countries will meet in St. Petersburg, Russia for a “tiger summit” to discuss how to stop tigers from going extinct.
It’s the first time heads of state have gathered for a meeting about a single species. But to many conservationists, the meeting shouldn’t have been needed at all. A decade ago, tigers seemed to have bounced back from the brink of extinction. But thanks to continuing illegal poaching, there are now just 3,200 tigers left in the wild; that’s down from over 100,000 a century ago.
As part of the run-up to the summit, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC released a report today detailing how more than 1,000 parts of tigers killed by poachers across Asia have been seized over the past decade. The tiger parts — including skins, bones, skulls and penises — were seized in India, China and Nepal and were destined for use in traditional Chinese medicines, decorations and even good luck charms, the report says.
The trade of wild tiger parts is illegal under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Earlier this year, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies explicitly stated that tiger parts were not necessary for traditional medicine. Tiger farms have sprung up to meet some of the demand. But a black market continues to thrive thanks to the widespread belief that medicines from wild tigers are more potent than those from farmed animals.
Conservationists were optimistic about tigers a decade ago for two reasons. The species are hardy–if allowed to breed, they do so quite successfully. What’s more, the main tiger countries all laid out refuges for the animals in their borders.
(Click here to read TIME’s 1994 Cover Story on Efforts to Save the Tiger)
But tigers are restless, wandering beasts; the refuges were necessarily large, and policing them has proved very difficult. According to the TRAFFIC report, many seizures take place within 30 miles of protected tiger areas like the Western Ghats in India, the Sundarbans of Bangladesh and Nepal’s terai region.
“Clearly enforcement efforts to date are either ineffective or an insufficient deterrent,” the report quoted Mike Baltzer, a tiger expert with The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), as saying.
The report recommends both tightening enforcement and curbing demand for tiger parts. But others have more revolutionary ideas. A recent study in the journal PLoS Biology suggested that protection be concentrated to the 42 “source” sites in India, Sumatra and Russia that contain 70% of the world’s remaining wild tigers. These sites are relatively small–roughly 6% of the tiger’s distribution—and therefore policing could be much more tightly enforced.
But the summit, which is hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and which hopes to lay out a plan to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, will likely settle on a more diverse and diffuse approach. It will likely look at poverty alleviation and education as part of a holistic effort.
To many conservationists, the tiger is a symbol of wild, untamable nature—allowing the beasts to go extinct would mark the crossing of a line for humanity’s acceptance of environmental degradation. As Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, recently told the Guardian: “[A tiger] is the epitome of the wild and wildness. It’s kind of a cliché, but we need wild in our lives. The tiger is a piece of that wild. We lose that and it’s the cork out of the bottle–everything else spills out. If we can’t pull together enough to save what is the most iconic living species, then what are going to do for lesser species?”