The world's wild tigers are on a "catastrophic" path to extinction as numbers continue to decline because of increased poaching, habitat destruction and poor conservation efforts by governments, a new report has said.
In less than a century, Asia's largest predator has been relegated to isolated populations residing in only 7 per cent of the areas they once occupied, according to a research paper published in the June edition of BioScience journal.
The report, titled "The Fate of Wild Tigers", said the loss of their habitat and the persistent killing of the wild cats had left areas such as the Caspian region and the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java devoid of tigers.
Countries such as India a stronghold of the tigers were inadequately implementing conservation policies and mismanaging funds set aside for the survival of the big cats, it added.
"While the tiger as a wild species will most likely not go extinct within the next half-century, its current trajectory is catastrophic," said the report, authored by 16 wildlife experts.
"If this trend continues, the current range will shrink even further, and wild populations will disappear from many more places, or dwindle to the point of ecological extinction."
Despite widespread trade bans, poaching remains a serious problem where products made from tigers, such as skins and bones used in traditional Chinese medicines, are coveted by consumers in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States.
But while laws exist to protect tigers from poachers, lack of resources for enforcement and a dearth of anti-poaching information networks have hampered efforts.
Plans by China to lift its 1993 ban on the domestic trade of tiger parts is sure to re-ignite interest among more than a billion consumers in emerging economies and this could be the greatest threat to the animals, said the paper.
"Ultimately, China, the state that has the fewest tigers, may pose the greatest threat to the tiger's ultimate survival in the wild."
Many of the tiger habitats are also too small, isolated or degraded to hold populations of the predator over the long-term, with increasing human encroachment and development of forests.
For example, in Sumatra, vast oil palm and acacia plantations are replacing some of the richest lowland rainforests on earth.
The report, whose lead author is WWF-International's Chief Scientist Eric Dinerstein, said it was important to link the small, isolated tiger areas by protected corridors, to allow for more space, movement and breeding of the animals.
The authors said Asian nations, led either by ASEAN or SAARC, a grouping of South Asian nations, should also hold a "tiger summit" aimed at securing a global pledge to protect the wild heritage of Asia.