Indo-Asian News Service
Tuesday, July 13, 2010 (Kathmandu)
You could call it a new action story starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by WWF! The Hollywood star < is playing a new role – spearheading an initiative to double the number of tigers worldwide, including the 123 big cats found in Nepal.
The 36-year-old celebrity paid a cloak-and-dagger visit to the Bardiya National Park in far-western Nepal to meet wildlife conservation officials and locals, with the paparazzi remaining lamentably unaware of the trip.
Leonardo, the star of acclaimed movies like Titanic and The Aviator, arrived in Nepal on a three-day visit in end-May – kept a tightly guarded secret – soon after he signed an agreement with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to lead Save Tigers Now, a campaign to increase awareness about the threats to tigers and raise funds for tiger preservation efforts.
With 2010 being the year of the tiger, WWF has what it acknowledges as "an ambitious goal" to earmark $20 million to double the tiger population by 2022, the next year of the tiger.
"Tigers are endangered and critical to some of the world's most important ecosystems," said Leonardo, who set up his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 to focus on climate change, water, disaster relief and preservation of the planet's biodiversity.
"Key conservation efforts can save the tiger species from extinction, protect some of the planet's last wild habitats and help sustain the local communities surrounding them. By protecting this iconic species, we can save so much more."
It is estimated that today there are just about 3,200 of the majestic creatures left in the entire world. More than 90 percent of the historic tiger habitat no longer has tigers, three tiger sub-species became extinct since the 1940s and a fourth one, the South China tiger, has not been seen in the wild for 25 years.
The decimation of the species has been caused by a combination of habitat loss and illegal poaching for tiger skin, bones and other body parts, which are used in many cultures as medicines, talismans, status symbols and clothing.
"Give tigers enough space and protection and they'll recover," says WWF CEO Carter Roberts.
"But public support means everything and changing laws and ending demand for tiger parts means we need to tell their story – in places like the US, India and China. Which is why this partnership with Leonardo is so important; he can reach the public, tell this story to our children and engage leaders around the world – to save tigers now."
The Nepal journey, undertaken with WWF experts, kicked off a campaign in Asia to see the threats tigers face first-hand. Leonardo is participating in anti-poaching patrols and meeting park guards engaged in warding off international traffickers.
In Bardiya, among the people he met was Bhadrai Tharu, a villager who lost an eye after an encounter with a tiger. It was only a week after Leonardo and his team left that Tharu realised he had met a celebrity.
The WWF's casting coup in Nepal comes five years after it equally secretly flew in Hollywood glamour girls Cameron Diaz and Eva Mendes in Nepal and Bhutan as part of the MTV reality show Trippin' to highlight its conservation work and the difference it was making to local people's lives.
While WWF's homegrown brand ambassadors in Nepal are Miss Nepal and Apa Sherpa, the Himalayan legend who has climbed Mt Everest an incredible 20 times, its glamour representative in neighbour India is Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan.
Nepal, despite its political turbulence, remains a big hit with celebs .
In 2008, Unicef roped in Hollywood star Orlando Bloom as its brand ambassador who toured Nepal for four days to see how the organisation's programmes were faring in western Kaski district and Chitwan in the south.
In the past, Hollywood icon Richard Gere as well as singer Cher have visited Nepal to meet Tibetan refugees.
In contrast to all these low-key visits, the trip by another celeb last year created a commotion, though perhaps not in the way the organisers wanted. The UN Population Fund brought Spice Girl Geri Halliwell to launch a campaign for better maternal healthcare as well as prevention of violence against women.
But the visit is best remembered for Geri catching Nepal's unwary Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal in an iron hug in public and planting a hearty kiss on his blushing cheek.
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