THE Siberian tiger, on the verge of being wiped out to fill an insatiable demand in traditional Chinese medicine, might have found an unusual protector in North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Almost extinct in the vast Russian Far East forests of Taiga, the large carnivore has found refuge in the Stalinist state's most sacred site, Mount Paektu, claimed to be Kim's birthplace. The mountain is one of the Korean peninsula's eight major scenic spots and was a secret military base during the war against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, when the leader was reportedly born there. Western experts dispute Mount Paektu's significance and say his birthplace was Khabarovsk, Russia, but the 2,750-metre mountain has been preserved as a nature reserve. A North Korean official in Pyongyang, 385 kilometres south, said wild tigers still roam the forested slopes of Mount Paektu. 'The carnivore still survives in other nature reserves in the isolated country, including many close to the Chinese border,' she said. North Korea claims 80 per cent of the country is covered by mountains and that it has 'abundant wildlife'. Judy Mills, Hong Kong spokesperson for TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) which is linked to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, believes Siberian tigers survive in North Korea but has been unable to obtain any details. 'North Korea is one of the last unknown habitats in this part of the world. It could be the last stronghold for these tigers. 'If the reserves are small, there is little chance of an ecosystem being large enough to support a tiger population,' she said. In 1992, Pyongyang claimed there were 10 Siberian tigers in the wild, but gave no other details. North Korean diplomats have traded in horns, elephant tusks and other animal products to earn hard currency for the cash-strapped state. Late leader and founder Kim Il-sung, who died last July, is believed to have used rhino horn to try to prolong his life. The country is also reported to be producing bear bile at special farms where the animals are confined in cramped cages and unable to move. 'The Chinese claim they learned how to milk bile from bears from the North Koreans,' Ms Mills said. This month, bottles of 'Korean Bear's Gall' were on sale in Pyongyang's prestigious Koryo hotel, the lodging of foreigners invited into the country.