MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, China's premier Wen Jiabao and other world leaders will hold an unprecedented summit next week in a last ditch effort to save the tiger from extinction.
Just 3,200 tigers now roam free, down from 100,000 a century ago, and those that remain face a losing battle with poachers who supply traders in India and China with tiger parts for traditional medicines and purported aphrodisiacs.
The leaders are expected to endorse an initiative by the World Bank and wildlife charity WWF aimed at doubling the tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger under the Chinese calendar.
"For the first time we have world leaders coming together focused on saving a single species," Jim Leap, international director general of the WWF told reporters on Thursday.
Putin, who is hosting the "tiger summit" with officials from 13 tiger range nations, will try to thrash out a deal aimed at turning the tables on poachers. China's Wen and the prime ministers of Bangladesh and Laos are among those expected.
"The summit may be the last chance for the tiger. Tigers are vanishing," World Bank President Robert Zoellick told reporters on a conference call ahead of the gathering, which he will attend in Russia's former imperial capital of St Petersburg.
"We need to see poachers behind bars, not tigers," he said. "If we can't save the tiger, which almost every human being knows from an early age, than what is the likelihood we are going to be able to save any other species?"
The bid to halt poaching, loss of habitat and tiger-parts trafficking will cost about $350 million over five years. Securing funding for the 12-year cross border plan will be one of the main aims of the conference, according to the WWF.
On the eve of the forum, a rare Siberian Amur Tiger was found dead from poachers' bullets in Russia's Far Eastern region of Primorsky, highlighting the greatest threat to the tigers.
Only 300 to 400 wild Amur Tigers remain, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
"This crime is a wake up call," IFAW's Russia director Masha Vorontsova said in a statement. "We can't save the tigers unless we combat rampant poaching, which is the single greatest threat to the survival of this species.
Putin, Russia's most powerful man, was feted by Russian media in 2008 for saving a television crew from a Siberian tiger by sedating the beast with a tranquillizer gun.
A study by the WWF and wildlife trade watchdog Traffic this month said more than 1,000 tigers have been killed over the last decade for illegal trade, an average of 104 to 119 tigers a year. The groups said this was probably a fraction of the total.
India, home to half the world's wild tiger population, is the center of the trade with the most seizures of tiger parts, followed by China, where demand is rampant for tiger parts used in traditional medicines and as aphrodisiacs.
Tiger skins can fetch thousands of dollars on the Chinese black market, though just 1,000 breeding females remain in the wild, surviving on barely 7 percent of their historic range.
Yet Leap of the WWF said it was not too late to save them.
"The good news about tigers is that they are cats and that means that if you protect them, if you provide them space and food, meaning prey, they will come back: They are prolific breeders."
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff