Properly protecting the world's remaining 3,500 wild tigers from poachers, habitat fragmentation and other threats would cost just 42 percent more than is already spent on tiger conservation—an additional $35 million per year, or $10,000 per cat, according to a new study published September 14 in the journal PLoS Biology.

The money would be used to secure 42 vital "source sites," which the paper defines as "sites that contain breeding populations of tigers and have the potential to seed the recovery of tigers across wider landscapes." Local governments, NGOs and other donors already spend $47 million per year protecting these sites. The study says fully protecting the sites would cost $82 million per year.

India contains 18 of these source sites. Sumatra (in Indonesia) holds eight, and Russia has six more. Other sites are located in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Laos and Nepal.

This plan wouldn't protect every tiger in the world, nor does it address specific tiger sub-species, but it would place priorities on which populations to protect in order to get the most conservation benefit.

The rapid decline of tiger populations over the last century may actually benefit conservation, to a degree. According to the study, 70 percent of the world's wild tigers are clustered in just six percent of their current range. With so many tigers in so few locations, protecting the "source sites" becomes both easier and more essential for the tiger's long-term survival. "Efforts need to focus on securing these sites as the number one priority for the species," lead author Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a prepared statement.

So how about that $10k per cat? "The price tag to save one of the planet's great iconic species is not a high one," said Alan Rabinowitz, president and CEO of the wild-cat conservation organization Panthera, which also contributed to the study. It's true: People are already willing to pay up to $20,000 or more for an illegal tiger skin, so spending half that to keep a tiger alive is a no-brainer. (And that figure doesn't even include the black-market price of tiger bones, penises and other body parts sought for health treatments unsupported by science, etc., which brings the total value of a poached tiger carcass upward of $50,000.)

And then there's the spin-off effect of spending this money: new jobs to protect tigers and their habitats, more money from eco-tourism and healthier ecosystems due to healthy predator populations.

Where would the $35 million a year come from? It's a drop in the bucket in terms of the global economy. Heck, as Andrew Revkin of The New York Times points out, $35 million is just a fraction of the profits generated by Apple's OS X Tiger operating system over the years.

The study was conducted and written by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the IUCN, the World Bank and other groups. It was released in advance of a summit on tiger conservation that will be hosted by Vladimir Putin in Russia this November. (The summit was originally set to take place this week, but has been delayed until November 22-23.)

Photo by Keven Law via Flickr. Creative Commons licensed.