The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other experts say only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, a dramatic plunge from an estimated 100,000 a century ago.
James Leape, director general of the WWF, told the meeting in St Petersburg yesterday that if the proper protective measures are not taken, tigers may disappear by 2022, the next Chinese calendar Year of the Tiger.
Their habitat is being destroyed by deforestation and construction, and they are a valuable trophy for poachers who want the skins and body parts prized in Chinese traditional medicine.
The summit approved a wide-ranging programme with the goal of doubling the world's tiger population in the wild by 2022 backed by governments of the 13 countries that still have tiger populations: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam and Russia.
The Global Tiger Recovery Programme estimates the countries will need about 250 million in outside funding in the first five years of the 12-year plan. The summit will be seeking donor commitments to help governments finance conservation measures.
"For most people tigers are one of the wonders of the world," Mr Leape said. "In the end, the tigers are the inspiration and the flagship for much broader efforts to conserve forests and grasslands."
The programme aims to protect tiger habitats, eradicate poaching, smuggling, and illegal trade of tigers, and create incentives for local communities to engage them in helping protect the big cats.
The summit, which runs until Wednesday, is hosted by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who has used encounters with tigers and other wild animals to bolster his image. It's driven by the Global Tiger Initiative which was launched two years ago by World Bank president Robert Zoellick.
Mr Leape said that along with a stronger action against poaching, it was necessary to set up specialised reserves for tigers and restore and conserve forests outside them to let tigers expand.
"You have to find a way to make it work for the local communities so that they would be partners in tigers conservation and benefit from them," he said.
"To save tigers you need to save the forests, grasslands and lots of other species. But at the same time you are also conserving the foundations of the societies who live there.Their economy depends very much on the food, water and materials they get from those forests."
About 30 per cent of the programme's cost would go toward suppressing the poaching of tigers and of the animals they prey on.
Russia's natural resources minister, Yuri Trutnev, said that Russia and China will create a protected area for tigers alongside their border and pool resources to combat poaching.
"Wild tigers are not only a symbol of all that is splendid, mystical and powerful about nature," the Global Tiger Initiative said. "The loss of tigers and degradation of their ecosystems would inevitably result in a historic, cultural, spiritual, and environmental catastrophe for the tiger range countries."