TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Asia's tiger reserves could support more than 10,000 wild tigers -- three times the current number -- if they were managed as large-scale areas that allowed movement between breeding sites, according to a study.
Just 3,200 tigers live in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago, and those that remain face a losing battle with poachers who supply traders in India and China with tiger parts for traditional medicines and purported aphrodisiacs.
A November summit in Russia of leaders from the nations that host the world's last wild tigers pledged to double their numbers by 2022.
But the study, co-authored by scientists from the Worldwide Fund For Nature (WWF), said that could be achieved and even exceeded if global efforts were made to preserve breeding areas and ensure they were connected by habitat corridors.
"In the midst of a crisis, it's tempting to circle the wagons and only protect a limited number of core protected areas," Eric Dinerston, Chief Scientist at WWF and one of the study's authors, said in a statement.
"We absolutely need to stop the bleeding, the poaching of tigers and their prey in core breeding areas, but we need to go much further and secure larger tiger landscapes before it is too late."
Some 20 priority tiger conservation landscapes with the highest probability of survival could support more than 10,500 tigers, including about 3,400 breeding females, the study said.
In one case, tiger numbers in the jungles of lowland Nepal crashed during civil conflict between 2002 and 2006. But tigers did not disappear as forest corridors between reserves in Nepal and India likely allowed for replenishment from India.
In contrast, tigers disappeared from India's Sariska and Panna reserves in 2005 and 2009 because of poaching, with natural replenishment impossible as the reserves had no links to others. Wild tigers had to be transported in an attempt to re-establish the populations.
While many habitats are under potential threat from Asian infrastructure projects estimated by the study to be worth $7.5 trillion over the next decade, preserving broad swathes of land will provide other benefits.
"It is also worth noting that the tiger conservation provides carbon credits, protects water resources and complements community development efforts," Deepak Bohara, Nepal's Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation, said in a statement.
"Thus, it is important to promote regional cooperation to maintain a healthy tiger corridor between different reserves."
A series of measures were approved at last year's "tiger summit" to double the wild tiger population, including a ban on construction in breeding places and a crackdown on poaching by using global police agency Interpol and the United Nations.
Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Ron Popeski