With friends in high places, is there hope for the tigers?

Where the world's tiger population once numbered 100,000, it now stands at 3,500, with several species facing extinction. Stanley Johnson was an attendee of the first Global Tiger Summit in St Petersburg last month. He was surprised at the level of agreement among the world elite.

Stanley Johnson
21 December 2010

At the end of last month (November 2010) I attended the first ever “Global Tiger Summit”, held in St Petersburg, Russia.  This was an intriguing and important event for a number of reasons.  Chief of these, from my perspective, is that thanks in part at least to the decisions reached in St Petersburg the prospects for the survival of the tiger in the wild may be measurably improved.

Over the last century, tiger numbers have plummeted from about 100,000 to less than 3,500 tigers in the wild today. Three sub-species of tigers have already completely disappeared and the fate of the other six is at stake. The last decade alone has seen a decline of almost 40 per cent in tiger numbers and habitat as a result of human-made threats, such as, in particular, habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade and poaching and human – tiger conflicts. 


The Siberian Amur Tiger is one of the species currently endangered. Photo Credit: Pat Murray

Why will the St Petersburg Summit make a difference to the fate of the tiger? It is easy to be cynical about the motives of world leaders but I found myself, during those few days in St Petersburg, ready to give them at least the benefit of the doubt.  The key role in the preparatory process was played by the World Bank. Two years ago World Bank President Robert Zoellick, alerted to the fact that the tiger was on the verge of extinction, devoted time and energy to setting up a Global Tiger Initiative so as to bring together all thirteen tiger range countries (TRCs) at a series of preparatory meetings. The outcome of those meetings was an action plan, known as the Global Tiger Recovery Programme, whose objective is to reverse the dramatic decline in tiger populations around the world, so as to achieve a doubling of tiger numbers by the year 2022.

Of course, there have been tiger recovery action plans in the past. Some of them, like Indian Prime Minister’s Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger, have at first seemed to be successful in stemming the decline in tiger populations only – for one reason or another – to run out of steam. But the GRTP seems to be the first truly comprehensive document, built from the bottom-up on realistic national tiger conservation plans and projects.

 It is easy to be cynical about the motives of world leaders but I found myself ready to give them at least the benefit of the doubt. 

Under the draft GTRP, which was presented to the St Petersburg summit for agreement, the thirteen tiger range countries ‘agree’ to strengthen international collaboration to protect the majestic Asian wild cat. Scientific monitoring will be improved to help restore the species’ habitats and its trans-boundary corridors. Halting poaching and illegal trade of tigers and tiger products is a core component of the conservation strategy. Creating incentives for local people to protect tigers and strengthening wildlife law enforcement and legislation will be vital to achieve the ambitious targets. Conflicts occurring between tigers and local communities will be reduced by involving local people more actively in biodiversity protection. 

During the discussions of the draft GTRP in St Petersburg, numerous delegates pointed out that the tiger has played a very important role in Asian nature and culture for centuries. Almost half of the world’s population, 3.3 billion people, live in the countries of the tiger’s distribution range in Asia. Therefore immediate and effective steps are necessary to create an economic and ecological balance matching the interests of these states towards a safe future for the tiger.

Tigers being on top of the food chain have an important umbrella function to maintain the biodiversity of its habitat. As such they maintain the biodiversity of the region, contribute to a healthy ecosystem and generate tourist revenue for economies through tiger watching and safaris.

The Terai Arc Landscape between India and Nepal, for example, shows how conservation efforts to save the tiger have also resulted in increased benefits for the endangered Rhino and other animals in the region. The ecosystems in these countries support tigers, their prey and a vast amount of biodiversity. Any efforts to conserve the tiger as an umbrella species will also ensure that the rich biodiversity of these areas is protected.

Even if the leadership of the World Bank was absolutely crucial in developing the global tiger initiative, the effort could only have come to fruition with the whole-hearted ‘buy-in’ of the Tiger Range Countries themselves. This buy-in was to a large extent achieved in the run-up to St Petersburg and the momentum was maintained at St Petersburg itself.  Indeed I cannot recall another occasion when so many heads of government have gathered together to endorse an action plan for the conservation of a single non-human species.  And this is where Prime Minister Putin’s own commitment to ensuring the success of the St Petersburg Tiger Summit was absolutely crucial.  In a very real sense, he made it happen.

 PM Vladimir Putin speaks at the Global Tiger Forum in November. Putin is now reported to be a "genuine animal lover"

Rather like Robert Zoellick himself, Vladimir Putin seems to have had his own ‘on-the-road-to-Damascus’ conversion to tiger conservation when in August 2008 he visited the Ussuri Nature Reserve in Russia’s Far East and participated in a scientific programme, involving the tagging of the Siberian or Amur tiger, of which only 400-500 remain in the wild.  Putin himself is reported to have aimed the tranquillising dart, thereby earning global headlines: “Putin shoots tiger!”  Russian colleagues I spoke to in St Petersburg assured me that Putin is genuinely an animal-lover and though he, as any other politician,  is no doubt aware how these macho-moments will play in the public mind, his deep-down conservationist motives should not be questioned.

Russian colleagues I spoke to in St Petersburg assured me that Putin is genuinely an animal-lover and though he, as any other politician, is no doubt aware how these macho-moments will play in the public mind, his deep-down conservationist motives should not be questioned.

Be that as it may, one thing is certain: Putin and Zoellick working together attracted an astonishingly high-level of participants to St Petersburg.  On the last day of the meeting, we were bussed in a snowstorm from St Petersburg to the Konstantinovsky Palace on the gray, frigid shores of the Gulf of Finland.  The line-up on the dais that morning included, besides Mr Putin and Mr Zoellick, Premier Wen Jiabao of China, as well as the Prime Ministers of Nepal, Bangladesh, and Laos. All of them made speeches, some better than others.  Who, I asked myself, except Putin, could have delivered that line-up?  Getting Premier Wen Jiabao, for example, to St Petersburg on what was literally a one-day visit almost wholly dedicated to tigers was frankly staggering.

Another reason for optimism about the outcome of the St Petersburg meeting is in my view the continued commitment which is being shown by the World Bank.   The Tiger Summit adopted a Declaration which, among other things, invited the World Bank to continue with the Global Tiger Initiative.  In his own remarks to the Tiger Summit, World Bank President Robert Zoellick stressed the readiness of the World Bank to administer a ‘tiger trust fund’ and to contribute to that fund as well as funding conservation programmes directly in the tiger range countries, and encouraging others to do the same. The price tag on the Global Tiger Recovery Programme amounts to $US350 million spread over five years.  When 80 billion Euros are being ` to save Irish and other banks, $US 350 million could, frankly, be characterised as chicken-feed.

There was one other reason why I came away from St Petersburg with a sense of optimism.  I attended the Global Tiger Summit as the Ambassador of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), together with my colleague Aline Kuehl, one of CMS’ Scientific Officers. (The CMS’ Executive-Secretary Elizabeth Mrema had unfortunately been detained on official business at CMS headquarters in Bonn.)  During the course of the St Petersburg meeting Aline and I were able to meet Russian Environment and Natural Resources Minister, Yuri Trutnev, as well as Deputy Minister Igor Maydanov.  We pointed out that the CMS fervently hopes that the Russian Federation will soon become a party to the CMS, thus facilitating interstate agreements about transboundary movements.  I don’t often have the opportunity to report, as a journalist, on my own speeches, so here goes!  This is what I said at the conclusion of my remarks to the Global Tiger Meeting in St Petersburg on November 22. 

“In this context, I would just like to say how much Mrs Mrema, the Executive-Secretary of the CMS, and my CMS colleagues welcome the interest which the Russian Federation is currently showing in becoming a party to CMS. It is not just a matter of tigers. Many of the species of interest to CMS, some of them covered by specific agreements within the CMS framework, are to be found in the Russian Federation. Many of the migratory birds, which fly around the world, begin or end their journeys in this mighty land.  Many of the marine mammals originate in or pass through Russian waters on their way to other parts of the ocean. The sockeye salmon I saw in the rivers of the Kamchatka peninsular earlier this year spend a life at sea. So I just want to say that the red white and blue flag of the Russian Federation is a flag the CMS, which now has 114 members, will be very proud to fly in its atrium in Bonn.”

I much hope to be able to report in due course to Open Democracy Russia that the Russian Federation has indeed joined the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species and that Russia, building on Prime Minister Putin’s tiger initiative, is now taking the lead in seeking international protection measures, not just for tigers, but for a host of other endangered migratory species as well.

Stanley Johnson was representing the UN Convention on Migratory Species. Stanley’s new book (with Robert Vagg),  Survival:  Saving Endangered Migratory Species. is published by Stacey International


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