Stockholm - The number of tigers in the world has diminished at an alarming speed in recent years, global conservation group WWF cautioned on Wednesday, blaming poaching for much of the decline.
"We are left with roughly 3 500 tigers all around the world now," Bivash Pandav, a tiger specialist at the World Wildlife Fund, said, pointing out that "five years back, the estimate was around 5 500 to 6 000."
In India, which is home to nearly half of the world's tigers, or 1 400 animals, the number of the big cats has shrunk by 60 percent over the past three to four years, Pandav said during a visit to Sweden.
A century ago, some 40 000 tigers roamed the Indian subcontinent, according to the WWF, which singles out poaching, widespread destruction of the tigers' natural habitat and human hunting of their prey as the main causes of today's dire situation.
"Poaching is primarily to meet the demand for tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine... That's the immediate reason behind the decline of tigers," Pandav explained.
"The situation is pretty bad in the sense that they (the tigers) are rapidly being wiped out from many parts of their range," he added.
On the Chinese market, a dead tiger can be worth "tens of thousands of dollars," according to the WWF, while the United States is the world's second largest market for tiger products.
Despite the daunting challenge of preserving tiger populations, Pandav insisted that "there is definitely hope," pointing out that big cats "are prolific breeders (and) produce large numbers of offspring."
"Despite all the problems, there are a couple of places in India (where tigers) are doing pretty well," he said.
To rectify the overall situation however, the animals need access to forests, food and undisturbed habitats, Pandav said, insisting that the main priority was to protect the tigers from poachers and put "pressure on China to stop the farming of tigers."
"The Chinese government is actively planning to legalise the trade (of tiger products) and if they legalise this trade then the demand for wild tigers is going to increase many fold," he said, pointing out that people preferred products from wild tigers over farmed animals.
"That is going to be the death blow for the tigers in the wild," he said.