November 18, 2010—For centuries, the shrill calls of song birds and langoor monkeys have announced the presence of tigers in the dense rain forests of Asia. More often now, though, the forest's voices are falling silent.
The tiger, the king of the Asian jungle, is disappearing – a victim of poachers, encroaching development, and deforestation. In 2010, the Year of the Tiger, fewer than 3,200 of the iconic animals remain in the wild — down from 100,000 a century ago. The tiger's habitat has shrunk by 40% in the last decade alone.
Next week, leaders from 13 countries where tigers still live will gather in St. Petersburg, Russia for an unprecedented event – the first high-level meeting ever to save an endangered species.
The November 21-24 International Tiger Conservation Forum, hosted by the government of the Russian Federation, aims to turn up the heat on illegal trade in tiger parts while protecting the rich biodiversity of the tiger's forest home.
“We want to see poachers behind bars, not tigers,” says World Bank President Robert Zoellick. “The 13 tiger range countries have come together with specific recovery plans to double the number of these iconic cats by 2022, the next year of the tiger. We aim to support them.”
At next week’s Tiger Forum, Zoellick will join heads of state and ministers from the 13 tiger-range countries, in addition to Germany, Japan and Korea. Representatives from the United Nations, Global Environment Facility, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Islamic Development Bank, and global and regional ecological conservation organizations are also expected to attend.
“We are looking for the highest level of political will. We have to take very effective, sharp action to stop the bleeding,” says Keshav Varma, program director of the Global Tiger Initiative at the World Bank.
Halting Biodiversity Loss
The forum follows on the heels of the United Nations biodiversity conference in Nagoya, Japan, where leaders pledged to take “urgent action” and increase funding to halt the global loss of biodiversity, and where the World Bank unveiled a green-accounting pilot program to measure the wealth of the earth’s ecosystems.
That move reflects a shift in the traditional development paradigm, says Varma. “The old idea that all development is only brick and mortar has to change. Saving biodiversity, saving isolated patches of wilderness, is extremely important for humanity.”
“The tiger is an umbrella species,” adds Zoellick. “When we save tigers, we help save the biodiversity of their prey populations and habitats. So this is about even more than saving a species. The Global Tiger Initiative is a symbol of how well we can take care of our planet."
Stepping Up Enforcement
The forum is expected to set in motion the Global Tiger Recovery Program – the product of 30 months’ work among all the tiger-range countries and partners, including the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, World Wildlife Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and several other organizations.
Designed as a five-year, $350 million plan, the recovery program’s goals include effective management of tiger habitats, stepped up enforcement at hot spots like border crossings along tiger smuggling routes, and increased penalties and conviction rates for poachers.
Countries’ efforts will be boosted by a new “consortium to combat wildlife crime” including Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organization, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the World Bank, which is involved in the governance of forests, says Varma.
He adds that a key part of the program will be creating the institutional architecture to fight illegal trade and traffic. “We have to build capacities at the front line to ensure there is proper patrolling of these protected areas.”
At the summit, the World Bank will announce two programs using financing from its fund for the poorest countries. One will help Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and India step up enforcement. Another program will cover Cambodia and Lao PDR.
Sophisticated Black Market
The tiger conservation effort, however, is up against a sophisticated and mobile black market for tiger parts—where a whole tiger can fetch $50,000, according to conservationist organization TRAFFIC, a Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) partner.
GTRP partners are exploring additional financing options to boost the effort. One plan involves enhancing the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, which allows investors to claim carbon credits for their support. REDD-plus would create a premium market for species conservation. Nepal and Malaysia have expressed interest in participating in a proposed pilot program to test the idea, says Varma.
Other possibilities include ecotourism or bonds for which investors pay a premium to support conservation.
Nothing will work without the support of people living near tiger habitats, says Varma.
“Biodiversity is not just about forests, it’s about communities. Unless forest-dwelling communities and indigenous people understand the value of a live tiger against a dead one, we’ve lost the battle. We’ll never be able to save it.”