Bangkok, Thailand In a radical new vision, a leading group of experts says that a century from now 100,000 tigers can roam the planet perhaps 20 times more than at present if the proper measures are taken.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and has programs to protect wild animals in 53 countries, says there is clear potential for recovery because huge tracts of tiger habitat remain intact.
That offers rare optimism for the future of the big cat, which has been nearly wiped out in many countries by poachers supplying tiger parts for Chinese medicines and by human encroachment on its habitat.
"Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are in very bad shape tigers and the prey they need to survive have been hunted out," said Alan Rabinowitz, the society's director of science and exploration. "But what those countries have is large areas of great forest."
The society's tiger experts working in those countries and in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India and Russia got together for the first time in Bangkok this past week to discuss the plight of the endangered cat.
Although they agreed the situation was bleak, the experts said tigers could thrive again if the forests where they still survive are properly protected from poachers. Also, governments must prevent further deforestation.
"A goal of bringing back 100,000 tigers is not unrealistic," said Rabinowitz. "But none of it can be effective without political will on the part of governments."
In severely poached places like Indochina and Thailand, it will first be necessary to restore levels of the tiger's prey, such as deer and wild pig. A single female supporting cubs needs to eat 60 or 70 such animals a year.
Also, corridors of forest linking different tiger population sites would then need to be grown so the big cat populations could roam and reproduce across a wider area.
"Tigers can breed all year round, so if they are left alone, there is a good potential for recovery," said Tim O'Brien, co-director of the Wildlife Conservation Society program in Indonesia.
A century ago, tigers used to inhabit a huge swathe of Asia, from the snowy forests of the Russian Far East to the tropical jungles of Cambodia and dense undergrowth in the Indonesian archipelago.
In India, home to the largest wild tiger population in the world, some 80,000 were killed between 1875 and 1925 during British colonial rule when bounties were offered for them, said Ullas Karanth, a conservation society zoologist in India, who attended the Bangkok meeting.
Thirty years ago the tiger was on the brink of extinction in India, but armed protection in forest reserves helped turn the situation around an experience that could be duplicated in other countries, Karanth said.
"We have solid examples from India, Nepal and Russia of what can be done," he said.
No one is sure how many tigers still exist in the wild.
Estimates in India put the number between 700 to 5,000. Populations in the Russian Far East and Indonesia are in the hundreds. In most other countries, sightings are increasingly rare.
Besides poaching, tigers in many countries are threatened by a surplus of war weapons from decades of civil strife.
In Cambodia's northeastern Mondulkiri province, two of four tigers that were photographed by conservation society cameras in protected forest were later found to have been killed by land mines laid by poachers, said Joe Walston, a society biologist in Cambodia.