Can Vladimir Putin save the world's tigers?

BANGKOK, Thailand — Asia’s most venerated beast, the tiger, is being wiped out by those most obsessed with its folky mystique.

Despite prohibitions throughout Asia, businessmen still bestow bushy tiger pelts as auspicious gifts. Apothecaries still treat leprosy with a dab of tiger fat. Wine is spiked with pureed tiger bones in hopes of boosting of strength.

Conservationists fear that 2010, the Year of the Tiger, will stir even more interest in the black market for tiger parts.

But with the world’s wild tiger population dwindling fast — to roughly 3,200 from last century’s 100,000 — global interests are mobilizing a tiger bail-out plan.

If Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the World Bank and more than 30 NGOs succeed with their “Global Tiger Initiative,” the wild tiger population will double by 2022 — the next Year of the Tiger.

If they fail and trends continue? “We could see the extinction of the wild tiger,” said Mike Baltzer, heading the initiative for the World Wildlife Fund. “It’s unlikely we’ll lose the last individual tiger ... but could see tigers to the point where they can’t survive in the wild.”

A “poaching epidemic” is largely to blame for slashing the tiger population more than 95 percent in the past century, Baltzer said. But tigers are also losing their habitats to human development. As more forests become farms or neighborhoods, both tigers and their prey — typically hoofed beasts — have less land to cling to.

On Jan. 27-29 forestry ministers from 13 tiger-inhabited countries met in Thailand’s seaside Hua Hin resort to hammer out conservation promises. Attended by delegates from India, Thailand, China and 10 other nations, the gathering was a warm-up for a larger pact-making meeting in Vladivostok, Russia.

That September summit will showcase various heads of state, World Bank President Robert Zoellick and Putin, the face of the initiative and a known tiger lover. In 2008, Putin subdued a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer dart and pulled back its thick jowls to the delight of film crews, who later broadcast the footage around the world.

Still, conservationists are much more interested in support from officials in China. Though the domestic trade of tiger parts is outlawed there, Chinese customers drive much of the demand for skin, wine, powder and talismans made from tigers.

China’s State Forestry Administration has called for a crackdown on smugglers of tiger parts and better monitoring of tiger farms, which profit from tourism. According to a recent report by Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency, only 50 wild tigers remain in all of China. Its farms hold about 5,000.

Traffic International, a wildlife monitoring network that tracks the Chinese trade, believes the tiger market has diminished but still persists. Xu Hongfa, head of the group’s China office, welcomed promises of enforcement. “2010 will determine if the tiger’s future burns bright or continues to fade away,” he said in a statement.

Still, many contributors to the Global Tiger Initiative are wary of China’s commitment.

“There have been notable cases of enforcement,” said William Schaedla, director of World Wildlife Fund Thailand. “But at the moment, we’re not seeing many indications that the Chinese government is closing down the tiger market.”

The fur trade in China is large, he said. But demand for medicinals — scientifically dubious wines, powders, creams and tonics — is much larger.

“I won’t say it’s traditional Chinese medicine,” Schaedla said. “We’ve taken to calling it Chinese folk medicine.” The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a Global Tiger Initiative participant, condemns the use of tiger parts for medical purposes.

Reviving the tiger population will require more armed anti-poaching squads to chase down poachers and destroy tiger traps. The World Bank has already promised $1.5 million to train conservation officers in various countries. India’s government has even created an online “Tigernet” database, which tracks poaching arrests and discoveries of tiger remains.

The initiative will also beef up reactive measures, such as training port-of-entry baggage handlers to spot smuggled wildlife products — an effort partially funded, in Thailand at least, by the U.S. government.

Far more difficult, however, is convincing bureaucrats to say no — to bridges, roads and housing developments that recklessly eat into tiger country.

Conservation agencies have secured commitments from India and Thailand. But success is less promising in junta-run Burma, which shares a 82,200 square-mile swath of tiger-friendly habitat with Thailand. Burma’s supply of tigers and weakly governed border with China is already known as a tiger trafficking corridor.

“We believe that tigers are now very close to extinction,” Baltzer said. “They’re really clinging to the last places they can survive.”