Washington: Nearly extinct, tigers can still be saved but efforts necessary for their survival face two huge obstacles: deforestation and the black market, where the big cats sell for 50,000 dollars a piece.
A hundred years ago, they still numbered 100,000 and were spread across Asia, from India to China and passing through Russia. But today, even the most optimistic estimates find that only 3,500 tigers remain in the wild.
"Tigers are on a decline, they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching," said Joseph Vattakaven, one of India`s top tiger scientist.
The senior coordinator of Tiger Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in India and a couple dozen other experts from Asia gathered at the National Zoo in Washington to exchange plans to preserve the species.
A symbol of power and ferociousness, the super predators are hunted down for their prized coat of dark vertical stripes over white and reddish-orange fur.
But poachers are also after the predators` bones, teeth, claws, whiskers and other organs used for traditional medicine and potions that allegedly boost sexual performance -- think tiger penis soup -- but also make a killing on the black market.
Most of the clients are in China, according to Vattakaven.
"We have to stop the demand in China. People are not aware of how many tigers are in danger," he said. "Everyone must be involved. We need to involve people of local communities" near tiger habitats to put a stop to poaching practices, he added.
Among the ideas offered up at the gathering organized by the Global Tiger Initiative: creating specialized patrols well-versed in poaching techniques that could dissuade or apprehend poachers.
"Those are small groups with guns. With their presence only, they can frighten poachers." said Somphot Duangchantrasiri, a Thai forestry officer and head of the Khao Nang Ram Wildlife Research Station.
"But it`s dangerous because the others got guns too. There were shootings and people were killed." The sheer size of tiger habitats also present a major challenge.
In Russia, "the problem is that we have these vast areas, all those small roads; you have to control all the vehicles, which is virtually impossible," said Vladimir Istomin, the deputy head of a Russian government agency charged with protecting wildlife.
For the Global Tiger Initiative, the top priority remains halting poaching but next on the list is mitigating the man-made destruction of tiger habitats. Cornered into divided territories, tigers are struggling to find prey and to reproduce.
The solution, some say, is to build protected pathways between the different lands the fierce creatures call home so that they may evolve without fearing man -- and without man fearing tiger.
"We need connections between parks to exchange genetics" between tigers in a crucial move to preserve the species, Vattakaven pleaded. Experts say the challenge is just as environmental as it is political, as they remain locked in a battle to convince governments at stake to add tiger conservation to their already heavy agendas.
But that`s easier said than done.
Russian tigers live in a developing area with ongoing construction.