The road to the world’s first tiger summit in Vladivostok later this year will have to be paved with answers about the future of tiger farms in China and other East Asian countries, said conservationists.

Pressure to place such farms on the agenda at the September summit in the Russian city stems from the estimated 5,000 domesticated tigers in China’s tiger farms, which exceed the total number of tigers living in the wild – about 3,200 – in the forests of 13 Asian countries.

"The issue of tiger farms will have to be discussed before the Vladivostok summit," said Michael Baltzer, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) tiger initiative. "Closing tiger farms is a very complex issue. What are you going to do with the tigers?"

"The Chinese government is showing commitment to monitor the farms and to continue a ban on the trade of tiger parts," according to Baltzer. "But they are not going as far as closing the farms. We have to take this issue step by step."

The Asian giant imposed a 1993 ban on the trade of the endangered big cats, which also included stiff sentences for violators and an order for pharmacies to clear their shelves of medicines with tiger parts.

Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and World Bank President Robert Zoellick will co-host the tiger summit, which seeks to attract new financial commitments to implement programmes across the 13 tiger range countries to save the wild cat that numbered some 100,000 at the beginning of the 1900s.

The fate of the tiger farms, however, was not on the formal agenda of Asia’s first ministerial meeting on tigers, which ended Friday in Hua Hin, a beach resort town south of Bangkok. The ministerial meeting, slated for Jan. 27-29, is part of a drive led by the World Bank to conserve one of Asia’s iconic predators through its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI).

The meeting succeeded in getting governments from all 13 tiger range countries to commit to ensure a doubling of the wild tiger population by 2022. These countries are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Bank did not remain silent on the issue of East Asian tiger farms, though, given its public statements against such ill treatment of tigers since the GTI was launched in June 2008. "It wasn’t discussed as part of this ministerial conference’s agenda, but we have expressed our concerns," said Keshav Varma, programme director for GTI. "The farms are quite contrary to conservation."

"Our position is not specific to China or Thailand or Vietnam," Varma said. "Tiger farms create a perverse trade in tiger parts and it can expand demand. Any tendency that feeds such demand will affect tigers in the wild."

The tiger farms, which are used to meet the demand for tiger parts, are found in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Almost every part of the tiger caters to an increasing demand that has come with rising affluence in East Asia. Besides the well-known trade in tiger skins, tiger bones are used for wines and powdered Chinese medicines, some parts to cure skin diseases while the tiger penis is sought as an aphrodisiac.

The illegal trade in wild tiger parts is part of a booming illegal wildlife trade, which is reported to be the world’s third largest illegal trade after arms and drugs. Interpol estimates the annual value of the trade to be between 10 and 20 billion U.S. dollars.

Supporters of tiger farms have reportedly argued that such ventures help to curb the illegal trade of wild tiger parts by limiting supply to the domesticated predators bred for such trade.

Conservationists pooh-pooh such thinking. "That is completely bogus," said Nirmal Ghosh, a writer and trustee of the Corbett Foundation, which works with the largest wild tiger population in northern India. "If tiger farms sell tiger parts, a black market will develop for wild tiger parts."

Ghosh revealed an equal fear. According to him, it is a trading pattern that will see wild tiger parts infiltrating the market meant for farmed tiger parts. "This is what happened with the ivory trade, where (the banned trade of) Asian ivory was trafficked to pass off as African ivory following its legalisation."

Yet while the Bank may win praise for turning the heat on tiger farms, it is up against conservationists who question the Washington D.C.-based financial institution’s commitment to save the wild tiger by protecting its natural habitat. After all, the final statement coming out of the GTI-supported ministerial meeting pledged to stop pushing ahead with development projects, such as building roads and bridges, if they damage tiger habitats.

"Even a cursory examination of the impact of World Bank lending (in India) for (coal) mines, dams and roads reveals that wildlife and wildlife habitat have always been acceptable collateral damage for Bank executives searching for locations to push lucrative projects," said Bittu Sahgal, editor of ‘Sanctuary Asia’, one of India’s leading wildlife news magazines. "This organisation has evolved strategies to ‘engage’ with civil society, while conspiring with big business and politicians to hammer through destructive projects."

"India is littered with failed or failing World Bank dam projects, including the Rihand Dam at Singrauli (district of Madhya Pradesh state), which was originally meant for irrigation and power generation, but was reduced to serving as a reservoir for toxic waste and to supplying cooling water for thermal plants," Sahgal charged in an e-mail interview.

"The list of World Bank projects damaging forests and ecosystems, threatening fisheries and harming endangered species, is long."