Poachers are hunting down tigers across Asia and Russia for their skin, bones, and even private parts to sell on the lucrative wildlife black market. With populations dwindling, the world’s remaining 3200 wild tigers could use some help – and fast. And certainly, it looks like people from around the world are uniting to save the tiger – by declaring their intention, over and over.
Next week, 400 participants from around the world will gather in Russia for the seventh meeting in two years on how to save the tiger — if they raise a tonne of money.
One could argue that next week’s meeting is not your typical gathering of wildlife advocates. The International Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, will be hosted by Vladimir Putin. World Bank President Robert Zoellick and environment ministers from all tiger range countries will attend, along with hundreds of government and non-government officers from 25 countries. Participants will review a bold new 57-page Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP), spearheaded by the Bank and its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), which calls on governments to reverse the decline of the tiger and double its numbers by 2022. With the promise of the Bank’s global convening power, GTI’s recovery plan is being hailed as the tiger’s “last great hope”.
Meanwhile, during this week-long, $1.4 million meeting, poachers and traffickers will kill and smuggle more tigers across borders, while enforcement teams try their best to stop them with minuscule resources and weak laws.
This never-ending conversation needs to stop. Hold off on the long stream of PowerPoints. Any meeting which spends another minute or dollar in the name of tiger conservation should find a quick way to support and expand frontline wildlife enforcement, and strengthen laws against wildlife crooks.
To give the GTRP its due, it is an impressive document. It articulates, for example, how securing tigers lends protection to other wildlife, habitats and watersheds, and helps mitigate global warming. But it has two problems: first, a huge price tag ($350 million), which is unlikely to attract donors before the wild tiger disappears; and second, it ignores an important lesson from the past.
That lesson lives in Russia. In the mid 1990s in the Russian far east, a small group of people, including myself, helped launch a local anti-poaching brigade. Code-named Inspection Tiger, the brigade took on organised poaching and trafficking gangs that were wiping out Siberian tigers, bears and other wild animals and slipping them under the recently lifted Iron Curtain to China and other consumer countries. Our coalition sponsored Inspection Tiger’s salaries, vehicles, fuel and training. In four years, and for $700,000 (about half the cost of next week’s meeting), poaching was brought under control across an area the size of Sweden. The Siberian tiger population was stabilised (until Inspection Tiger’s legal claws were clipped by national authorities).
There are more examples of low cost, fast-results species recovery programmes, including from India. But they did not result from expensive meetings held far from the animal’s habitat. The GTI Secretariat is based in Washington, DC, nine time zones away from the closest wild tiger. GTI promotes big-brand “wildlife and law enforcement monitoring” programmes, which will simply document the tiger’s demise if there is inadequate local enforcement. It calls on the United Nations and Interpol to help range states, including India, rescue the tiger from traffickers.
Such big helping hands won’t hurt — so long as they don’t grab funds or attention from field enforcement teams. But as currently drafted, the GTRP is doomed. Like other large foreign-based conservation programmes, it is costly; it lacks innovation; it will become bureaucratic, slow, and lose sight of the goal. The writing is on the wall: smaller, efficient government organisations and NGOs will eventually be sub-contracted to improve performance, but they will be given scraps and brought in too late. The big players will focus more on ticking off donor reporting boxes, while the poacher slips away.
Leaders at the forum need to recognise the existing will in the field — where enforcement teams are taking up the fight and can save the big cat with modest and consistent support. And let’s not forget the tiger vacuum. China and Vietnam need to shut down all forms of tiger trade within their borders — with no further discussion. Let’s not turn conservation into conversation.
The writer, Steve Galster, is director of FREELAND Foundation, an international, Bangkok-based environmental group
Thu Nov 18 2010, 02:45 hrs