Reporting from Moscow — With the tiger on the verge of extinction, officials from 13 nations agreed Tuesday on a program to double the population of the big cat by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger under the Chinese zodiac.
The Tiger Summit, which brought together Russia and a dozen other Asian nations where tigers are still found in the wild, issued a statement declaring that the animal "is one of the most important indicators of healthy ecosystems."
The officials promised to raise millions of dollars from governments and private organizations to do "everything possible to effectively manage, preserve, protect, and enhance [tiger] habitats."
"Everybody understands full well that we are talking not just about a concrete representative of the live nature, a tiger, but we are talking about the state-level understanding with which we begin to address the environmental issues," said Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"We are thinking not about the next elections but about the next generations," added the Russian leader, who is often accused by opposition politicians of using events ranging from wildfires to the promotion of the country's auto industry to campaign for the presidency.
The preservation program will help enhance the world's tiger population, which is now estimated at 3,200, and increase Russia's own number of tigers from 450 to more than 700, said a Russian official. The latter figure would bring the number of tigers above the risk of extinction.
Germany pledged to allocate nearly $30 million to the cause internationally and the U.S. Agency for International Development was ready to provide more than $350,000, said Amirkhan Amirkhanov, a senior official of the Russian Natural Resources Ministry.
"It is impossible to preserve these precious animals without preserving their habitats, which have been suffering from agricultural and industrial invasion in the last several decades," he said in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg, where the summit was held.
Amirkhanov said poachers were killing between 20 and 30 tigers a year in Russia, sending their bones and body parts to China for use in traditional medical treatments.
Three Chinese smugglers were arrested in April on the Russian-Chinese border with three tiger skins and sets of bones, said Yuri Darman, head of World Wildlife Fund-Russia's station in the far eastern city of Vladivostok.
"Now many [wealthy] so-called new Russians like to furnish their house walls and floors with tiger skins," he said. "Unfortunately the fines for murdering a tiger and trading its skin are very small."
He said a person caught in Russia carrying a tiger skin is fined only $33 but added that Putin promised to significantly increase the penalty.
Longtime Russian environmentalist Alexei Yablokov, an advisor to the Academy of Sciences, raised concerns that only a small portion of the money pledged to saving the big cats in Russia will find its way to the cause.
"Russian corruption is so immense that most of all these millions won't be able to pass the pockets of corrupt Russian officials and border officers," he said. "However, Putin's personal participation in the project will make them scared and cautious for a while at least and some tigers will be saved."