The plan suggests that the tigers' best hope is big-picture habitat protection that includes not just antipoaching efforts but also the preservation of prey species and large, unbroken tracts of tiger country.
Like many large predators, tigers do not thrive in small, fragmented "islands" of suitable habitat, even if they are protected.
But some areas of healthy tiger habitat do survive, the experts note. Several tiger populations are stable, and a few are even increasing.
Last summer a comprehensive survey reported that Siberian tiger populations were holding steady in the snowy forests of eastern Russia.
(Read " Siberian Tigers Stable, According to Landmark Survey" [June 16, 2005].)
Tigers are also doing well in the Terai Arc region of India and Nepal, a corridor of land that runs along the border between the two countries. (See map of Nepal.)
"Success in tiger conservation tracks pretty well to how we've invested," WWF's Dinerstein said.
"We know how to conserve tigers. If we stop the poaching of tigers and their prey and protect their habitat, they come roaring back. Tigers and wolves are the two large carnivores that breed faster than their prey, so you don't need generations of patience to see tigers bounce back.
"We've seen it happen almost overnight, and that gives me hope."
Tiger Habitat Hot Spots
The study's authors identified 76 prospective tiger conservation areasincluding 20 of highest prioritywhere the cats have the best chance for long-term survival.
The big cats' four greatest strongholds appear to be the Russian Far East; the Terai Arc of India and Nepal; the northern forests of Myanmar (Burma), Bhutan, and India; and the Tenasserim forests connecting Myanmar and Thailand.
Conservationists have called for an international summit on the tiger that would bring together leaders of the 13 nations where the cats live, in hopes of charting a course to safeguard the animals' future.
"We'd like to see high-level commitments from the countries that still have tigers to increase the number of parks and improve park management," said Colby Loucks, a conservation biologist with WWF.
"We'd like them to say that they think tigers are an important part of the ecosystem and [that] they are committed to having them in their countries."
In addition to international and national leadership efforts, local support is critical for the tigers' future, conservationists add.
"People that live with tigers are on the front lines of tiger conservationthose are the people that we need to recruit in order to save tigers," the Wildlife Conservation Society's Sanderson said.
"If those people want to have tigers around, then we'll have tigers around."
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