Russian president Vladimir Putin has burnished his hard man image at this week's tiger summit in St Petersburg, but in the long run the fate of the endangered cat is more likely to be decided by softly-spoken Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.
The two leaders demonstrated sharply contrasting styles during their meeting in the Konstantinovsky palace that partly reflects their individual backgrounds and their countries' records on conservation.
Putin, the host who famously shot a tiger with a tranquiliser dart two years ago, was at the centre of all activities and widely praised for making this groundbreaking conservation event possible.
The former KGB man has demonstrated his passion for nature in recent years with high-profile demonstrations of his mastery over some of the world's biggest beasts. He has fitted an electronic collar on a polar bear, fired a crossbow dart at a white whale to get a skin sample and received a tiger cub for a birthday present.
But he has also banned seal hunting. And at times today the macho leader sounded like a touchy-feely green, quoting Ghandi and calling for greater appreciation of wildlife and ecosystems: "Nature is the habitat of humans so caring for tigers and their habitat is caring for all people."
He is in a strong position to take a compassionate line. The Amur tiger population in Russia has bucked the global trend by making an impressive recovery from fewer than 30 in 1945 to about 500 today. It is evidence that the animal can recover if supported by political will and public awareness.
China, by contrast, has not only seen its own population of tigers decline precipitously in the past 50 years, its consumers have also boosted demand for illegally-poached tigers from overseas. Despite banning the tiger trade in 1993, the government has sustained hopes for a resumption of the domestic trade through support for rare-animal farms.
Premier Wen was the only one of the five national leaders at the summit who did not deign to attend the "press conference" (where no questions were allowed). In the summit, he stressed the need for greater enforcement. "All countries should crack down on poaching and illegal trade of tigers," he said. For conservationists, it was a disappointingly vague statement from the country that drives the main demand for tiger products.
Change remains possible. Tiger products have been removed from the pharmacopia of traditional medicine ingredients. Chinese officials are also discussing whether to impose a breeding ban on tiger farms as a step towards changing the way they are managed. This – along with the burning of existing stockpiles of carcasses and more undercover investigations by police – would send a clear signal that the tiger market is closed for business in China.
But premier Wen has not made that happen yet. Until he does, the political power of Putin and the conservation money from the World Bank will not just come to nothing. It will be helping to extend the longevity of the tiger traders.December 16, 2010
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
Caring for cats – Ending the trade
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