The world’s last wild tigers are “close to catastrophe”, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday at an unprecedented summit aiming to save the animal from extinction.
The global tiger summit in Saint Petersburg, the first ever meeting of world leaders devoted to saving the fabled beast, agreed a plan aiming to double the numbers of wild tigers between now and 2022.
The Russian strongman said that the world’s population of wild tigers had declined by a factor of 30 over the last century to 3,200 individuals while their habitat area was only seven percent of what it was before.
“The situation of the tiger is close to catastrophe,” Putin told an audience of top officials and heads of government including Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“It is a tragic and deplorable result,” said the Russian premier, who has personally championed protecting Russia’s remaining population of wild tigers in its Far East.
Putin underlined the importance of the meeting, billed as the final political chance to work out a plan to save the tiger.
“We are not thinking about upcoming elections but about future generations, to whom we should leave what we have admired,” he said.
“No-one can reproach us for talking rubbish, when the heads of government have met to speak about a big cat,” he added. “We have put the tiger on the agenda of the international community.”
Putin has made no secret of his love for tigers, famously fixing a radio collar to a wild tiger in the Far East of Russia in 2008.
“Nature has sent us calls of alarm in the hope of being heard,” he added. Putin also proposed offering families of tigers to Iran and Kazakhstan, where the tiger became extinct in the last half century.
The summit received a high-profile boost earlier when it emerged that Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio pledged one million dollars to save the tiger, and was scheduled to attend the meeting.
“Leonardo DiCaprio today committed one million dollars to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for urgent tiger conservation efforts,” the WWF said in a statement.
The WWF also confirmed reports that “DiCaprio will also attend this week’s summit.” It was not immediately clear whether he had already arrived in Saint Petersburg.
World Bank president Robert Zoellick said the institution hoped to provide about 100 million dollars to save the wild tiger by supporting wildlife habitat protection and stopping the illegal trade in tiger body parts.
“We have little margin for error. This summit is highlighting the last chance for this incredible animal,” he said.
Sheikh Hasina said that after the summit the world now stood united in efforts to save “these magical creatures”.
Poaching, often in pursuit of tiger parts destined for the lucrative Chinese medicinal market, and habitat destruction have caused the drastic weakening of the world’s tiger population over the last years.
Russia is the only country to have seen its tiger population increase in the last years from 80-100 in the 1960s to around 500, a success seen by some as helped by Putin’s support of the animal.
Some experts however cast doubt at the summit over the value of the radio-tagging project that Putin has spearheaded, raising concerns that it could end up harming the animal.
“They see people close up, have no fear of them, and then become easy targets for well-equipped poachers,” said Yuri Zhuravlev, a zoologist who specialises in the Russian Far East.
Along with Russia, 12 other countries host fragile tiger populations — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.