ST.PETERSBURG, Russia — Global wildlife experts and officials from 13 countries opened a "tiger summit" on Sunday to discuss how to save the big cats whose numbers have shrunk so sharply they could become extinct if quick measures are not taken.
The World Wildlife Fund and other experts say only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, a dramatic plunge from an estimated 100,000 a century ago.
James Leape, director general of the World Wildlife Fund, told the meeting in St.Petersburg that if the proper protective measures aren't taken, tigers may disappear by 2022, the next Chinese calendar year of the tiger.
Their habitat is being destroyed by forest cutting and construction, and they are a valuable trophy for poachers who want their skins and body parts prized in Chinese traditional medicine.
The summit, which lasts through Wednesday, is hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has proficiently used encounters with tigers and other wild animals to bolster his image. It's driven by the Global Tiger Initiative which was launched two years ago by World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
The summit plans to approve a wide-ranging program with the goal of doubling the world's tiger population in the wild by 2022 and to produce a declaration of commitment signed by government leaders from all countries that still have tiger populations: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam and Russia.
"I hope we will take all efforts to double the population of tigers," Leape said.
The summit will be seeking donor commitments to help governments finance conservationist measures. A draft of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, expected to be approved at the meeting, estimates the countries will need $330 million in outside funding over the next five years to fulfill the plan. About 30 percent of that estimate would go toward programs to suppress the poaching of tigers and of the animals they prey on.
For advocates, saving tigers has implications far beyond the emotional appeal of preserving a graceful and majestic animal.
"Wild tigers are not only a symbol of all that is splendid, mystical and powerful about nature," the Global Tiger Initiative said in a statement. "They are also a beacon of biodiversity, linking together the forests they inhabit and the natural resources and ecosystem services that their habitats produce for people."
"The loss of tigers and degradation of their ecosystems would inevitably result in a historic, cultural, spiritual, and environmental catastrophe for the Tiger Range Countries."
Three tiger subspecies — the Bali, Javan, and Caspian — already have become extinct in the past 70 years.
Over the past two decades, much has been done to try to save tigers, but conservation groups say their numbers have continued to fall markedly, by about one-third just since 1998.
In part, that decline is because conservation efforts have been increasingly diverse and often aimed at improving habitats outside protected areas where tigers can breed, according to a study published in September in the Popular Library of Science Biology journal.
Putin has done much to draw attention to tigers' plight. During a visit to a wildlife preserve in 2008, he shot a female tiger with a tranquilizer gun and helped place a transmitter around her neck as part of a program to track the rare cats.
Later in the year, Putin was given a 2-month-old female Siberian tiger for his birthday. State television showed him at his home gently petting the cub, which was curled up in a wicker basket with a tiger-print cushion. The tiger now lives in a zoo in southern Russia.