World Bank aims to earn stripes through tiger summit

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World Bank aims to earn stripes through tiger summit

By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Jan 26, 2010

BANGKOK – An international campaign to save the tiger, one of Asia’s iconic wild animals, has been chosen as the place for the World Bank to earn its stripes as an institution keen on joining the ranks of conservationists.

Senior officials from the international financial institution’s Washington DC headquarters will be in Thailand to attend the Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, which runs from January 27-29 in Hua Hin, a beach resort town south of Bangkok.

The ministerial meeting in Thailand is the penultimate conference on the road to a heads of state meeting in Vladivostok in September. World Bank president Robert Zoellick is billed to co-chair the tiger summit with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“We are witnessing the power of the World Bank to bring governments together through its involvement,” Mike Baltzer, leader of the tiger initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF – formerly the World Wildlife Fund), told journalists last week. “The bank has funded US$1.5 million to train officers in some tiger-range countries.”

The bank’s move into tiger territory was unveiled in June 2008 with the launch of the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), which pledges to place the concerns of tiger conservation on the international political agenda and to take a lead role in conservation efforts.

“The bank hopes to invest in high-priority conservation actions, ensure that its own infrastructure investments do not damage tiger populations, and support investigations and economic analyses of key issues such as poaching and habitat conversion,” states the WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, in a background note ahead of the Hua Hin meeting. “This is believed to be the first time in the bank’s history that it has undertaken such a major and focused initiative targeting a single species.”

Last January, Thai police seized four decapitated tiger carcasses found in a truck passing through Hua Hin in Prachuap Kiri Khan province. Police said the dead tigers were believed to have come from Malaysia and were being transported to China.

The following month, Thai authorities discovered the butchered carcasses of two tigers and a panther when they stopped a truck further south in Pattani province.

Last May, the Thai navy seized two tiger carcasses and 45 pangolins and arrested eight traffickers who had planned to smuggle the animals across the Mekong River into Laos, TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, reported at the time.

Laos, one of the 13 Asian countries home to wild tigers, offers visible signs of the bank’s new interest in the wild tiger. It is backing an awareness campaign featuring billboards with an image of the endangered animal at the international airport in Vientiane. A message to stop illegal wildlife trade appears on each sign.

The billboards and stickers with a similar message that appear on the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis in the Lao capital were unveiled by the bank in November last year.

The World Bank office in Laos provides support to Laos through the Global Tiger Initiative, Victoria Minoian, a bank spokeswoman at the Vientiane office, said. The bank has also been co-sponsoring the Lao Campaign for Wildlife Conservation, which involves the government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, she added. The GTI has allocated US$15,000 to support this wildlife campaign.

Yet the bank’s aim to expand its portfolio by taking on the cause of the conservationists is drawing criticism from some environmentalists, given the financial institution’s history in funding large projects in developing countries – such as mega-dams – that have seen wanton destruction of the environment and affected livelihoods of local residents.

“The World Bank’s past record has left a trail of ecosystem destruction behind virtually every large project it has financed,” charged Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading wildlife news magazines. “Today tigers [in India] survive largely in the precise areas where World Bank money has been kept at arm’s length.”

The bank’s involvement to save the wild tiger is “worse than greenwashing”, he told Inter Press Service in an e-mail interview. “They are looking to pull off a public opinion coup. While they say they want to help tigers, they are simultaneously cajoling the Indian government to accept loans in excess of $1 billion for highways and mines that will destroy tiger and wildlife habitats.”

Conservationists supporting the tiger summit hope to draw mileage out of participants other than the bank.

The timing of this year’s meetings has added symbolism for Asia, because February 14 marks the start of the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar. The current wild tiger population is estimated at 3,200, which is half the number, between 5,000 to 7,000 wild tigers, that conservationists estimated were around when the Year of the Tiger was last celebrated 12 years ago.

“It is now or never,” said James Compton, Asia programs director of TRAFFIC. “I don’t think there has ever before been similar international attention and signs of political will towards tiger conservation.”

Among the expected goals to come out of this World Bank-led effort is for countries to implement strong enforcement programs that will “knock off the big illegal wildlife trader”, Compton said in an IPS interview. “There has to be good law enforcement to detect and prosecute those involved in driving the trafficking trade.”

Almost every part of the tiger feeds the global illegal wildlife trade, which is reported to be the third-largest illegal trade after arms and drugs. Interpol estimates the annual value of the trade to be between $10 billion and $20 billion.

“Illegal trade is not going away. It has remained persistent,” said Compton. “If you look at the pattern of seizures [of wild tiger parts], all tiger-range countries are implicated. It has a long trade chain.”

China and increasingly Vietnam are often fingered for driving the demand for tiger parts. Besides tiger skin often given as gifts, tiger bones are used for wines and powdered Chinese medicines, and tiger penis is sought as an aphrodisiac.

It explains the rapid drop in the wild tiger population in Southeast Asia, from Myanmar on one end to Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia at the other. The other tiger ranges are in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Russia.

A commitment to protect and expand these forest ranges that tigers inhabit is also a benchmark the tiger summit is expected to strike. “According to tiger experts, the wild tigers may disappear by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022 if no action is taken to stop the poaching and illegal hunting, and to enhance habitat protection,” states the WWF.

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