According to the Chinese lunar calendar, February 14, Sunday, begins the Year of the Tiger.

The largest of all cats, the tiger is one of the most charismatic and evocative species on earth. It’s also one of the most threatened. WWF estimates that there could be as few as 3,200 wild tigers left in the world – a shockingly low number.

What’s bad for tigers is also bad for people. In Indonesia, where maybe only 400 Sumatran tigers (one of the seven remaining subspecies) exist in the wild, tiger-human conflicts have escalated as the rainforest – traditional tiger habitat – is cut down. In March 2009, Indonesian environmental group Eyes on the Forest released a report comparing the locations of the last 12 years of tiger attacks with logging concessions. Not surprisingly, they found that deforestation correlates highly with tiger attacks. Happily, at a recent ministers meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, all 13 tiger range countries have committed to the goal of doubling tiger numbers by 2022 (the next lunar Year of the Tiger).

“Tigers are being persecuted across their range – poisoned, trapped, snared, shot and squeezed out of their homes,” said Mike Baltzer, Leader of WWF’s Tiger Initiative. “But there is hope for them in this Year of the Tiger. There has never been such a committed, ambitious, high-level commitment from governments to double wild tiger numbers. They have set the bar high and we hope for the sake of tigers and people that they reach it.”

To meet these goals, however, governments in rainforest nations need to get serious about saving tiger habitat – particularly rainforests. And governments in developed countries need to start regulating the commodities – like palm oil – that are driving the destruction.

WWF, who has declared 2010 the Year of Tiger Conservation, notes that:

“European countries currently have an annual import of around 5.8 million tons (5.3 million metric tons) of palm oil, an ingredient used in making countless everyday foods and products, from lipstick to ice cream to biofuels and detergents. Rainforests are often leveled to make way for palm oil plantations, and much of that destruction is taking place in Indonesia and Malaysia, home to Sumatran and Malayan tigers. Efforts to require that palm oil be produced from sustainable sources that don’t destroy forests are gaining ground, but much more needs to be done to save these two tiger subspecies.”

The U.S. is no different. Major U.S. agribusiness companies are importing and trading palm oil, encouraging the destruction of rainforests and tigers who live in them. Worse, we’re failing to stop the international trade in tigers and tiger parts – over 5,000 captive tigers now live in the United States, 1,800 more than exist in the wild.

The year of the tiger happens every 12 years. We know the solutions that will save tigers from extinction: preserve habitats, stop resource extraction and enforce laws, and totally ban trade in tiger parts. If we don’t want the tiger to join the more mythical animals of the zodiac like the unicorn, we’d better start getting our act together now.