Efforts to protect the wild tiger should be intensively focused on a few key sites if conservationists are to have any chance of saving it from extinction, a new study says.

The tiger is facing its last stand as a species.

John Robinson

Writing in the journal PLoS Biology today, an international team of researchers reveal that most of the world's last remaining tigers are now clustered in just six percent of their available habitat.

With numbers of wild tigers at an all-time low despite decades of conservation initiatives, the paper urges the international community to focus on 42 "source sites", which it describes as the last hope and therefore the main priority for the recovery of the world's largest cat.

It adds that the price tag of doing so would be relatively low - costing an estimated $35million more than the current total being spent on tiger conservation per year.

The study is a collaboration by a team of researchers, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Cambridge, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Global Environment Facility, Panthera, World Bank, and others.

Co-author John Robinson, from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Overseas Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, said: "The tiger is facing its last stand as a species."

"As dire as the situation is for tigers, conservationists know what it will take to save the tiger in the wild, and we are confident that the world community will come together to bring these iconic big cats back from the brink of extinction."

Fewer than 3,500 tigers remain in the wild, of which only about 1,000 are breeding females. Breeding populations have disappeared completely, research suggests, from countries where they were once numerous, such as Cambodia, China, Vietnam and North Korea.

Those that remain are threatened by a combination of overhunting of their prey, habitat loss and hunting of tigers for the wildlife trade. Much of the recent decline in wild tigers is being driven by the demand for tiger body parts for use in traditional medicines.

This autumn, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, will be hosting a "Tiger Summit" in Russia, with the hope of kick-starting a new, co-ordinated international effort that might arrest the decline.

The new study identifies 42 tiger source sites, covering in total less than 6% of available tiger habitat (about 100,000 km²). These are defined as sites that contain breeding populations of tigers and have the potential to seed the recovery of tigers over a wider area in the future.

By focusing solely on these sites, the authors argue, and supporting conservation efforts with tried and tested methods of law enforcement, wildlife management and scientific monitoring, 70% of the world's remaining wild population will be protected directly. Such protection will stimulate an increase in the world's tiger population in a relatively short space of time.

The paper adds that effective conservation efforts focused on these sites are both possible and economically feasible, requiring an additional $35 million a year for increased monitoring and enforcement.

Much of the rest of the cost is already covered by the provision of governments in the countries where tigers are most common, supplemented by a relatively modest contribution from international donors and non-governmental organisations.

India is identified as the most important country for tiger conservation on this basis, with 18 source sites. Sumatra contains eight and the Russian Far East, six.

Professor Nigel Leader-Williams, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Geography, who contributed to the study, said that the method of protecting source sites had already proven successful in Africa, where a similar initiative focusing on core populations of rhinos was highly effective.

"The long-term goal is to conserve an Asia-wide network of large landscapes where tigers can flourish," Professor Leader-Williams added. "The immediate priority, however, must be to ensure that the few breeding populations still in existence can be protected and monitored. Without this, all other efforts are bound to fail."

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