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An adult male tiger is shown at a temple that offers care for the animals in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. ((David Longstreath/Associated Press))

The world has failed at protecting tigers in the wild, bringing an animal that is a symbol for many cultures and religions to "the verge of extinction," a top United Nations wildlife official said Monday.

Just 20 years ago there were 100,000 tigers in Asia, but now only 3,200 remain in the wild, according to Willem Wijnstekers, the secretary general of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

He called on countries to come up with strategies and co-operate with international agencies such as Interpol to end poaching and illegal trade in tiger products.

"We must admit that we have failed miserably," Wijnstekers said at the two-week conference in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. "Although the tiger has been prized throughout history … it is now literally on the verge of extinction."

Tigers are poached for their skins and parts of their bodies are prized for decoration and traditional medicines.

Later this week, delegates at the UN conference will discuss an all-out ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a contentious issue that has the countries of Asia and the West locking horns over a fish prized in sushi.

Global stocks of bluefin are dwindling, especially in the Atlantic, and some governments around the world are increasingly supporting a complete trade ban to let the fish recover.

The issue pits the Europeans and Americans against fishing nations in North Africa and Asia, especially Japan, which has already vowed to ignore any bluefin ban.

About 80 per cent of the species fished ends up in Japan. Raw tuna is a key ingredient in traditional dishes such as sushi and sashimi, and the bluefin variety — called "hon-maguro" in Japan — is particularly prized.

The conference will also consider the spike in rhino poaching and ways to combat criminal networks involved in the illegal trade in rhino horns in parts of Africa and Asia.

A bid to regulate the trade in red and pink corals — harvested to make expensive jewelry — could also divide the delegates.

All in all, there are 42 proposals on the table, ranging from stopping elephant poaching to banning trade in polar bear skins.