Summit Aims To Protect Tigers From Extinction

Leaders from Russia, China, and other countries have been meeting in St. Petersburg to try to save the world's tigers. It's the highest-level summit to focus on trying to save a single threatened species. There are believed to be only about 3,200 tigers roaming the wild, and the summit hopes to take measures to double that population over the next 12 years.

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Two unlikely partners have teamed up to host a summit on the tigers: The World Bank and Russia's prime minister. Vladimir Putin is a self-described tiger enthusiast with the lofty aim of preventing the world's dwindling tiger population from going extinct. The summit wraps up today in Russia, but organizers say the hard work still lies ahead. They have to find the money and the political will to protect the animals.

As NPR's David Greene reports, the conference was basically an emotional first step.

DAVID GREENE: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin invoked the tradition of Gandhi.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through Translator) Mahatma Gandhi once said, in a country where the tiger feels fine, everyone feels fine.

GREENE: Putin's always felt good around the tiger. In 2008, he got a cub as a birthday present. And he famously tranquilized a female tiger in the forest, gently putting a radio tracking collar on the animal so scientists could follow her. The video is on YouTube.

Worldwide, today only 3200 tigers remain out of captivity. Loggers have destroyed their habitats. Poachers have hunted them to sell their body parts. Tigers roam wild in only 13 countries, from Russia through south Asia. That includes Thailand, where Suwit Khunkitti is minister of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Minister SUWIT KHUNKITTI (Natural Resources and Environment, Thailand): I think when we talk about a tiger, it doesn't mean just only animals, the majestic creatures. The tiger is iconic.

GREENE: So recognizable around the world, he said, that losing the species could be a moral setback, sucking air out of the environmental movement.

This event, in St. Petersburg, is believed to be the highest-level gathering ever, focusing attention on a single threatened species.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: The palaces of that historic Russian city were filled with tiger paraphernalia, and flashy videos of the animals.

(Soundbite of growling tigers)

GREENE: You got the feeling those big cats were out there watching, hoping for some good news; reminded me of a favorite song.

(Soundbite of song, "What Do Tigers Dream Of")

THE HANGOVER (Music Band): (Singing) What do tigers dream of, when they take a little tiger snooze...

GREENE: As Bangladesh Environmental Minister, Mohamed Hasan Mahmud, put it...

Minister MOHAMED HASAN MAHMUD (Environment and Forests, Bangladesh): Indeed today, the tigers would be very happy.

GREENE: But how confident can they be?

Dr. JOE WALSTON (Asia Director, Wildlife Conservation Society): In some countries, the tiger has been lost altogether and it's on the brink in many others.

GREENE: Joe Walston is Asia director a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. The only hope, he said, is to build the population back step-by-step, focusing first on protecting what he calls source sites - areas where the world's thousand, or so, females remain.

Dr. WALSTON: These are the best of the last. And ff we do it right, they'll repopulate large landscapes and we'll bring back the tiger. If we don't focus on source sites, every other effort will fail.

GREENE: Walston said learning to control logging, learning to prosecute poachers, may teach leaders in some pretty impoverished countries, how to be more responsible.

Dr. WALSTON: So by improving overall governance and the rule of law, we're improving wildlife populations, and we're improving the sustainability of livelihoods for those local people.

GREENE: This was quite a diplomatic gathering. Countries here included Russia and China, India and Nepal. There were some nations who don't get along with the U.S. - Myanmar's military regime sent a delegation, as did Iran, which lost its tiger population long ago.

Russia's Deputy Environmental Minister, Igor Maydanov, said just bringing this group together was an accomplishment.

Mr. IGOR MAYDANOV: (Deputy Minister, Natural Resources and Environment, Russia): Maybe restoring tiger population is not such a serious problem like, for example, eliminating nuclear weapons. But still...

GREENE: It's an opportunity.

Mr. MAYDANOV: ...for the world community to respond together.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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