By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Conservationists must try to reduce the demand for tiger parts in China as part of a campaign to save the big cats, wildlife experts warned at an anti-poaching conference in Kathmandu.

Thousands of tigers once roamed forests in South and Southeast Asia but numbers have plummeted to about 3,000 worldwide. Experts say poaching is fueled by a thriving trade in China, where tiger parts are prized as status symbols and often used in traditional medicine.

"There is a culture among more and more wealthy people in China (to own tiger parts)," said Michael Baltzer, leader of the WWF Tigers Alive Initiative, referring to people who mount tiger heads and decorate living rooms with rugs made from their pelts.

"Tiger farming in China encourages (poaching) by stimulating demand for tiger parts," said Debbie Banks, head of the Tiger Campaign at the British-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

One hundred tigers a year have been killed for the illegal trade since the turn of the century, said James Compton, Asia's program director for TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network.

The numbers are based on tiger parts seized and reported by authorities, and suggests actual killings could be much higher.

Tigers would be hunted as long as there is such demand, said Anil Manandhar of conservation group WWF Nepal.

"Our goal should not only be zero poaching, but also for zero demand of wildlife parts," Manandhar told the conference.

Nepal is hosting the anti-poaching conference attended by delegates from 13 countries and several conservation groups to come up with a strategy to fight poaching in Asia.

India and Nepal are among countries praised at the meeting for their efforts to raise tiger numbers and curb poaching.

India's tiger population increased by nearly a third to 2,226 in four years, a survey showed last month.

Nepal reported 198 tigers in 2013, with the population of the elusive cats increasing by 64 percent in half a decade.

The country has marked two years since the last reported case of a tiger killed by poachers in 2012, said Tulsi Sharma of Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

"This has been possible due to involvement of local communities in conservation efforts," said Sharma, adding that volunteers work as informers or guards to patrol national parks.

"Fifty percent revenue generated at national parks goes to local communities to get them involved in anti-poaching drive."

 

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert Birsel)