For too long, conservationists have been able to pit little more than their passion for nature against the immense power of economic self-interest that drives nature-destroying development and sustains illegal markets for vanishing species. It is time for a total reinvention in national park management, provision of top science and technology to tiger conservation landscapes, and sustained political will to stop the bleeding.

Despite more than 30 years of conservation initiatives in the 13 Asian tiger range countries and around the world, tiger numbers have continued to decline. There were about 35,000 tigers living in Asian forests in the 1960s -- so few that the tiger was declared endangered and programmes were begun to protect them and their habitats. Today, there are no more than about 3,500 of these majestic big cats left. All of our best efforts -- and there are some tiger conservation initiatives such as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger of the 1970s -- merely made the downward slope a bit less slippery rather than stem the tigers’ downfall.

Massive infrastructure development throughout Asia has paved over much of the tiger’s habitat and threatens to take it all, with spending on infrastructure in Asia expected to exceed $500 billion a year. At the same time, growing economic prosperity in Asia, and especially in China, has fuelled a multi-billion dollar illegal trade in wildlife with tigers treated as commodities to be traded for enormous profit, not ecological assets to be sustained.

The government of Nepal is hosting a Global Tiger Workshop in Kathmandu, attended by wildlife biologists, conservation practitioners, representatives of the governments of the tiger range countries and international organisations, and some new players who have joined to change the game. The recently formed Global Tiger Initiative, designed to facilitate and promote cooperative, game changing actions on behalf of wild tigers is an alliance of governments, civil society, and the private sector. The World Bank too, led by President Robert Zoellick himself, is committed to devoting its global presence and convening power to this endeavour.

The challenge

The challenge for these experts will be to bring to the table global and local knowledge, experience, information, technology, and best practices to develop new strategies to save tigers through devising a robust, incentive-driven conservation agenda that makes landscapes with tigers more valuable than those without them.

Understanding that resisting development is not a viable strategy, the gathering of experts will seek to develop a blueprint for infrastructure development that is “green” and tiger-friendly. Experts will need to determine how best to tackle the illegal trade that has poachers killing at least one tiger every day. There is an urgent need for enhanced law enforcement and, most important, a strategy to reduce the demand for tiger parts and products, including the newly fashionable and repugnant practice of serving dinner guests tiger meat to signal status.

New and innovative models of habitat management, such as the recent success of South Africa’s National Parks Authority to transform national park management into a biodiversity-friendly business approach that respects the “people aspect” of conservation, will be discussed. Local NGOs and communities will need to be empowered to serve as agents of change. And new ways will need to be found to generate funds to finance tiger conservation, which at present is woefully under-funded compared to the magnitude of the challenge at hand.

On capacity-building, a model GTI partnership launched by the World Bank and Smithsonian Institution for the establishment of a global Conservation and Development Practice Network will get under way in 2010. This network will provide a training and professional support system to improve field conservation and management in tiger range countries, and will target forest resource managers and senior policymakers there.

The GTI, on its part, can be an important instrument to change the way the world values tigers and the biodiversity they represent. Wildlife conservation can no longer be treated as a fringe concern we can’t afford. It must be valued for what it really means to us. If ignored, the future will be bleak for the billions of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the ecological services, from carbon sequestration to watershed protection, of the forests that remain under the tiger’s umbrella.

Political commitment

Hopefully the shift is taking place. All of the nations in which tigers live, from India in the west and Russia in the east, are meeting in Kathmandu -- an unprecedented expression of regional unity that reflects the emergence of political commitment to save Asia’s tigers. Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s support and ministerial representation from countries such as Thailand is evidence of the momentum that is building to get serious about wildlife conservation and biodiversity protection. With a multilateral framework and regional protocol for cooperation among the tiger range countries, a trans-boundary “war on poaching” can help stop the bleeding.

By looking at the experience and best practices in tiger range countries from Russia to Malaysia on what works best and why, a global tiger recovery road map will begin to take shape. The meeting in Kathmandu aims to be a useful stepping stone to next year’s Year of the Tiger Global Tiger Summit, where governments and national and international organizations will formalise policy changes and commit to new investment in science and technology to reinvent the conservation and development paradigm. We must seize this moment at Kathmandu. There is symbolic importance in the Year of the Tiger, yet the year ahead must be more than a symbolic effort. It must be remembered as the year we took steps to save and sustain the tiger.

Excellent opportunity

Although several global meets in the past have not had the desired impact, Kathmandu offers an excellent opportunity to bring to the table ‘game-changing’ ideas in wildlife enforcement mechanisms, community livelihood incentives, innovative park management and capacity-building programmes, demand reduction, ‘green infrastructure,’ and new financial mechanisms. As 2010 and the Year of the Tiger approaches, these ideas and innovations could represent a new front in the battle to save the wild tiger. To paraphrase conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, if we win, we get to keep the planet.

(John Seidensticker is Head of the Conservation Ecology Centre at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and Chairman of Save the Tiger Fund Council. Keshav Varma is Programme Director for the Global Tiger Initiative, based at The World Bank Institute.)

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