BANGKOK, Jan 26 (Reuters Life!) - Tigers in the Greater Mekong region are facing extinction, their numbers down more than 70 percent in slightly more than a decade due to poachers and habitat destruction, conservationists say.
A new report by wildlife group WWF says tiger populations in the region that includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam have fallen to 350 from an estimated 1,200 in 1998.
Globally, tiger populations are at an all-time low of 3,200, down from an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 some 12 years ago.
"Decisive action must be taken to ensure this iconic sub-species does not reach the point of no return," said Nick Cox, coordinator of the WWF Greater Mekong Tiger Programme.
"There is a potential for tiger populations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to become locally extinct by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022, if we don’t step up actions to protect them," he added in a statement.
Tigers are being killed illegally to satisfy increasing demand for their body parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Destruction of their forest homes has also fuelled the decline, said the report, released ahead of the Chinese lunar Year of the Tiger which beings next month. Asian countries are a hotspot for the illegal wildlife trade, which the international police organisation Interpol estimates may be worth more than $20 billion a year.
Tiger skins sell as rugs and cloaks on the black market, and can fetch up to $20,000 in countries like China.
The WWF said Indochinese tigers were once found in abundance across the Greater Mekong region, but today there are no more than 30 tigers in each of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The remaining animals are predominantly found in the Kayah Karen Tenasserim mountain border between Thailand and Myanmar.
Ministers from Asian "tiger-range" countries are meeting in Thailand on Tuesday to discuss tiger conservation. The WWF’s Cox said the group would ask these officials to ramp up conservation efforts, mainly through protecting tiger habitats.
The Greater Mekong region contains the largest combined tiger habitat in the world, the group said.
"This region has huge potential to increase tiger numbers, but only if there are bold and coordinated efforts across the region and of an unprecedented scale that can protect existing tigers, tiger prey and their habitat," said Cox.
Tiger range states include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The first Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, which runs from Jan. 27-30, precedes a Tiger Summit which will be held in Russia this September.
(Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Paul Tait)