2010 is the year of the tiger according to the Chinese calendar.
Probably no animal on dry land impresses me more than the tiger. It is a magnificent combination of strength, grace, and color. I can almost understand the allure felt by those who delve in ancient homeopathic medicine; the power of this great animal somehow being transferred to us mere mortals. But it is that very demand which fuels poaching and, combined with encroachment on their natural habitat, has reduced the number of tigers in the wild to a paltry estimated population of 3,200.
I have written about their precarious predicament before and I bring it up again because of one significant ray of hope. In November, a meeting will be held in St. Petersburg, Russia with representatives of 13 nations - primarily those that have wild tigers within their borders - to discuss how to better enforce and protect the remaining population and what can be done in the long term to improve their numbers and ensure their survival.
Over the past century, the number of wild tigers have declined by a staggering 97%. If nothing can be achieved at next month's meeting, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the tiger could become extinct in the wild within 12 years.
"The worse scenario is that the tiger could be gone when the next year of the tiger comes along, in 12 years," said Ola Jennersten, of WWF Sweden.
But another factor that threatens the wild tiger is the demand for tiger products obtained from captive tigers and how the current economy is pushing more captive tiger owners to sell their animals, no questions asked, both of which keep the demand high for wild tigers.
In fact, according to the WWF, there are more captive tigers in the United States alone, than in all of the wild. An estimated 5,000 tigers are held in the U.S. - and, unfortunately, not just in regulated zoos and animal parks, but in private compounds that are far from healthy and humane for the animals.
The WWF is pushing for stricter regulation and better enforcement regarding captive tigers in the U.S. and is conducting a campaign to get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the November Tiger Summit to ensure that the U.S. plays an active role in preserving and protecting tigers, both wild and those within the nation's borders. Concerned U.S. citizens can visit the WWF website or click here to become part of the campaign.
For the first time in a long time, there could be a reason to feel encouraged. "Despite the gloomy figures, the situation is more hopeful than ever," Jennersten said.
When I was a child, my favorite stuffed animal - my security blanket as it were - was a small tiger. While I would probably be seen as potential prey by a real tiger today, there is that spot in my heart that hopes to give back to the tiger some of the security it once gave me. That's a trade in animals I could live with.
Read about possible tiger extinction in NPR.
Read about captive tigers in the U.S.