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Speeches & Transcripts

Speech by Vinod Thomas Director General, Independent Evaluation Group, The World Bank at the 1st Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation

January 29, 2010

Vinod Thomas. Director General, Independent Evaluation Group, The World bank. 1st Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation Thailand

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning to all. I would like to start by expressing my solidarity and deep gratitude to the Royal Government of Thailand, especially to Prime Minister Abhijit Vejjajiva, to the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Suwit Khunkitti, to Permanent Secretary Dr Saksit Tridech, as well as to the distinguished Ministers and delegates from the tiger range countries, and vital members of the international community. May I at the outset pay a special tribute to Minister Suwit for providing critical leadership and marshalling political will at the highest level.

I have witnessed extraordinary passion and momentum at this meeting, exemplified by the presence of the Ministers today. Here in Hua Hin, we are living an unusual moment. It was unthinkable just a decade ago that a multi-country ministerial meeting such as this, calling for action in tiger conservation, would take place. That this has happened is a tribute to each and every one of you, to your idealism, your commitment, your pragmatism, your hard work. 

As the head of the independent body that monitors and evaluates the World Bank Group and reports to its Board of Directors, I can also pay this tribute: it is remarkable that President Zoellick has rightly placed tiger protection and biodiversity conservation high on the list of priorities as an integral part of the development agenda, and I applaud him for that. It is crucial that this priority become a connected part of the institutional fabric of the World Bank Group, its partners and the countries.


Yet when it comes to past environmental destruction, there is enough blame to go around, and the World Bank Group, along with others, has had its share -- even as in evaluation, attribution of impacts and responsibilities is extremely difficult.  Currently my Evaluation Group is doing a modest, desk assessment of 20 (out of 115) WB supported infrastructure, ecosystem and other projects, including in India, with potential impacts on tiger populations and habitats. This work in progress seems to giving sobering lessons for the trends in tigers and biodiversity, less when it comes to identifying threats and planning, and more in ensuring monitoring supervision and follow-up.

Those who work on biodiversity conservation will recognize the limits placed by the lack of baseline information, which itself turns into a vicious cycle of inadequate priority for conservation, weak data and monitoring, poor knowledge of impacts and the continuation of insufficient conservation practices. The positive news is that it is being increasingly recognized that projects depend on resource bases and the integrity of ecosystems. But we now need to link objectives to the means of attaining them and support institutional capacity to deliver. Promising directions are decision support systems (developed by a consortium of NGOs) to anticipate better the impacts such as those on tiger populations, and the promotions of ecosystems services.

To the WBG’s credit, its institutional architecture has a built-in accountability and oversight mechanism to identify “fault” lines and to enable the learning of lessons from both successes and failures. In the case of tigers, as in many other instances from natural disaster management to primary education, lessons of the past are being taken to heart and learnt, and they are reflected in new directions. Climate change and REDD, for example, is a case in point.  We will need to take risks as we go along, but for that we must also build in the lessons learnt -- because we need all the innovation and risk taking to meet the daunting challenge of saving the tiger.


It is worth remembering that it has often taken a crisis for extraordinary actions to replace business as usual. We see that clearly in the economic sphere, be it financial reforms in Thailand or Korea after the financial crisis, or economic reforms in India or Brazil after the economic crisis, or environmental stewardship in Japan after an environmental crisis. But here is the rub when it comes to tigers.

Unfortunately some crises signal impending losses that are irreversible. In this case we must make sure that in the window of time available, all efforts are made to make sure results accrue. When the patient is on life support, all systems must go.  But even in emergency care in the ICU, we need not only speed but also protocols, the best skills and a high degree of coordination. We need both speed and quality. In that spirit, we’d like to see that the Declarations that come out of Hua Hin are bold and visionary, ones that inspire us to lift the game.

That is also why this meeting is special. We need the work of all the partners, civil society organizations, international institutions, country leaders. We need to harness knowledge and put lessons of experience to use. All the countries, assembled here, from Bangladesh and Nepal to China and Russia, have lessons to share and collaboration to strike. There are regional protocols to be established, and financing to be mobilized including from the international financing agencies such as the World Bank Group.

With a dwindling and yet the largest remaining tiger population, India has an enormous weight to carry, much to do, and at the same time a wealth of experience and an encouraging line of action. And consider China, who has brought the Panda from the brink of extinction. Could China translate those lessons for saving the tiger as well? Social sciences tell us that it is most likely going to be a mix of command and control and market incentives, combining a continuation of the ban on tiger trade – national and international, building incentives and making investments that China has excelled in.

Sustainable development

Stepping back from our immediate discussion for a moment, the plight of the tiger is in many ways hard to explain to a child. The magnificent animal is an emblem if not the symbol of nations, from soccer teams and sports equipment to beer and confections. If this iconic creature is a reflection of the wealth of nations, you would expect that it would be guarded. Furthermore, its needs are basic – a prey base, habitats and a modicum of protection. Yet we as a society have failed to protect it curiously in the name of the wealth of nations. Poaching and illegal trade in tiger parts, infrastructural and population encroachment and habitat loss are all to blame for the plummeting tiger population.

In the end it is economics that is behind the tiger’s fate. And so we need to turn to economics for an answer as well.  Today we get the unmistakable sense that we are at an inflection point, and that not only the tiger’s survival but also human survival depends on sustainable development. There is a gathering storm that threatens to undercut development. Natural disasters, especially hydro-meteorological ones such as the prolonged droughts in Africa and Australia, and hurricane Katrina and the growing floods and storm surges throughout Asia from Nepal and Bangladesh to Indonesia and Vietnam, are just some of the manifestations.

When we recognize these threats, the distinction between the short term and the long term behind which economists hide, disappear. Growth versus the environment becomes a false dichotomy. Eco-friendly is no longer just good ecology; it is good economics as well.

That brings us to today’s global economy. The huge increase in spending to stimulate the economies in today’s crisis conditions is a unique opportunities to spend the money differently from the past – in green technologies, in more sustainable livelihoods. Not doing so would also lock us into further disastrous directions for the next generation. There are some signs, however modest, of such a paradigm shift – you can see it in the stimulus packages of Korea, China and Mexico. Tiger conservation must build on this prospect. That’s why even in the midst of a financial crisis, it is opportune to talk about saving tigers.

Going forward

During this meeting, we have heard voices of idealism and notes of pragmatism on the best ways forward. The challenge before us now is to translate this reservoir of support into action and results. The challenge is to follow up on the good intentions of this meeting, take actions, and monitor results to ensure that the ensuing period between one meeting and the next tracks progress. Global Tiger Initiative has been a glue providing vital continuity and knowledge exchange, and it must continue to do so. Kathmandu saw the blending of technical excellence with political will under the stewardship of Minister Deepak Bohara. From Hua Hin we must take actions forward and begin to stem the decline in tiger population before the next summit in September in Vladivostok, Russia, with a Ministerial council to monitor measures and results,

Friends, this after all is the year of the Tiger – and with the backdrop of Hua Hin, it really can be. Let’s embark on an unmistakable path of reversing the precipitous fall in tiger population and help it grow over the years. Doing so will not only save the tiger in the wild, it will also increase the real wealth of nations. That is not an empty dream, but one that we can live by if we pull together at this crucial and historic moment.

Thank you.