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 ox, 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 that 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 and 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 will hold a first-ever meeting Wednesday through Friday 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 13 countries are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
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.
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."
Past efforts in tiger countries have been dogged by a lack of financing, poor coordination among conservation groups and weak government response.
But Smith said that 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 equipped with guns and uniforms, digital cameras and GPS devices, and a detailed form for listing signs of poachers, tigers and prey. The data they gather go into a computer so trends can be detected to guide rangers on the next patrol.
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.