HUAI KHA KHEANG WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, Thailand — After trudging through the wilds of western Thailand for several hours, the forest rangers thought they were finally onto something: the distant sound of crunching leaves.
Automatic weapons drawn, the five Thais crept forward, hoping to catch a tiger poacher. It turned out to be a banteng, a wild cow, which disappeared into the woods.
But all in all, the absence of illegal hunters was good news, said ranger Sakchai Tessri. "When we passed before, we would always run into poachers." Now he felt their room for maneuver was narrowing.
"In the old days," he said, "they would spend many nights in the forest for poaching. Now they just come in, shoot, grab and go quickly."
The 2,500-square-mile Huai Kha Kheang and Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuaries on the Myanmar border represent a rare success in the struggle to save the world's dwindling tiger population.
Funded by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, the increased patrols, armed with the latest technology, have scared off poachers and helped stabilize the tiger population of more than 100, along with animals such as the banteng which they prey on.
Elsewhere, tigers are in critical decline because of human encroachment, the loss of more than nine-tenths of their habitat and the growing trade in tiger skins and body parts. From an estimated 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, the number today ranges between 3,200 to 3,600, most of them in Asia and Russia.
Now hopes are rising that 2010 will see a turning point.
Ministers from the 13 countries with tiger populations are holding a first-ever meeting this week in Hua Hin, Thailand, to write an action plan for a tiger summit in September in Russia, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been championing the survival of the tiger.
The purpose of this week's meeting is to elicit promises of more money for conservation and to persuade countries to set tiger population targets. It is being organized by the Global Tiger Initiative, a coalition formed in 2008 by the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institute and nearly 40 conservation groups. It aims to double tiger numbers by 2020.
"The bleeding continues," said the World Bank's Keshav Varma, the initiative's program director. "I'm not sure if these poachers are feeling the heat of regional and global and national action. They seem to be operating rather freely."
David Smith, a tiger expert at the University of Minnesota who will attend the meeting, says action "has got to be now. We are at that critical stage."
But at least one skeptical activist is skipping the meeting.
"All we have gotten from ministers and heads of state is rhetoric," said zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, president of Panthera, a New York City group that works to conserve the 36 species of cats. "Putin loves tigers but (Siberian) tiger numbers are plummeting in the Russian Far East."
The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates the number of Russian tigers in the wild at 300 — down from a 2005 estimate of 500.
Past efforts in tiger countries have been dogged by a lack of financing, poor coordination among conservation groups and weak government response.
India acknowledged in 2005 that Sariska National Park, a premier tiger reserve, had lost all of its big cats to poachers, who cash in on a huge market for tiger skins and a belief, prevalent in east Asia, that tiger parts enhance health and virility.
Poaching could undermine Malaysia's goal of doubling its tiger population to 1,000 by 2020, and tigers could go extinct in China in the next 30 years, the World Wildlife Fund has warned. Populations have also crashed in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Environmentalists say governments need to overhaul their protection of sanctuaries, involve local communities more deeply in their conservation efforts, and protect critical habitat from the encroachment of roads, bridges and dams.
Park patrols are often outgunned by poaching gangs, underpaid and vulnerable to bribes.
Smith said countries are starting to invest more in patrols and that the successful methods from Thailand's Huai Kha Kheang and Thung Yai reserves are being introduced in Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Bangladesh.
The two sanctuaries are patrolled by 300 rangers
Dubbed Smart Patrols, they are equipped with guns and uniforms, digital cameras and GPS devices, and a detailed form for listing signs of poachers, tigers and prey.
Instead of just patrolling a park's perimeter, the Thai rangers trek through forest and mountains for up to five days. The data they gather go into a computer so trends can be detected to guide rangers on the next patrol.
Campfires, gunshots, shell cases, snares and other evidence of poaching have fallen by 80 percent in the past five years, said Anak Pattanavibool, the Thailand director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Poachers still enter the park — one was nabbed this month — but Anak said they remain at the periphery, no longer build camps and rarely stay longer than a few hours.
That's a remarkable turnaround for a time when gunfights with poachers were routine. Monuments honor four rangers killed in the line of duty 15 years ago.
The recent visit to the Huai Kha Kheang reserve revealed an ecosystem on the mend —fresh tiger tracks on a muddy river bank, and sightings of a panther, scores of deer, wild pig, jackal and a lone fish owl.
Conservationists say patrols alone are not enough — that institutions must look at the big picture of humanity and wildlife in growing confrontation.
Indian scientist K. Ullas Karanth, a tiger expert, says World Bank infrastructure projects "have been among the most damaging for tigers in Asia," and ways must be found of "separating people from breeding tigers" by drawing communities out of wildlife areas with offers of jobs and free land.
The World Bank's Varma said his organization is looking harder at development projects that split up tiger habitats.
"That is a huge change," he said. "It's a new beginning and acceptance we have made mistakes in the past."