Over the past decade, poachers have halved Asia’s population of tigers and are zeroing in now on the remaining, scattered 3,200. And what is the global conservation community doing to help? Doing what it does best: calling a meeting.
Conservation is turning into conversation. The International Tiger Forum being held in St. Petersburg is a case in point. Hundreds of participants from more than a dozen countries are gathered there for the seventh meeting in two years to discuss the plight of the critically endangered tiger. The well-intentioned event will result in a “St. Petersburg Declaration” to save the tiger, and a pitch to donors for a lot of money. Meanwhile, poachers and traffickers will continue to kill and smuggle more tigers.
The conversation needs to close. Any meeting that spends another minute or dollar in the name of tiger conservation should focus on expanding front-line wildlife protection, strengthening laws against wildlife crooks and enforcing the global ban on commercial tiger trading.
The St. Petersburg meeting, to be fair, does present an opportunity. Hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with support from World Bank President Robert Zoellick, the forum is expected to finalize a “Global Tiger Recovery Program” with the goal of doubling the population of wild tigers by 2022.
But the program has problems: The $350-million-dollar price tag is unlikely to attract sufficient investment before the wild tiger population is further decimated. And even if someone does pick up the tab, the plan is doomed because it ignores important historical lessons that live on in Russia and Thailand.
In the early 1990s, in Russia’s Far East, a small group of people (including me) launched “Inspection Tiger,” an anti-poaching brigade. The Siberian tiger was being hammered as traffickers slipped carcasses of big cats, bears and other commercially sought animals under the recently lifted Iron Curtain to China and other countries.
We formed a coalition of small nongovernmental organizations to help local authorities put the squeeze on syndicates by sponsoring 24/7 tiger brigades with salaries, vehicles, fuel and training. Over four years, and for $700,000 (half the cost of this week’s meeting), poaching was brought under control and the Siberian tiger population was stabilized.
Similarly in 2004, NGOs joined Thai authorities to launch the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network. Six Southeast Asian nations formed special task forces that in five years seized 350 tons of illegal wildlife, arrested 500 criminals and prosecuted 100. The U.S. Agency for International Development (Usaid) sponsored training, though only one country, Cambodia, required donor support to pay for its force.
Thailand’s team has been particularly efficient: It tracked down, arrested and prosecuted a major tiger trafficking ring following six months of investigations that cost less than $7,000.
The lesson: Front-line wildlife enforcement is cheap and it works.
But support must never stop. Wildlife laws must be strengthened. Recently, Inspection Tiger had its legal claws clipped and poaching of Siberian tigers has returned. The boss of the Thai trafficking ring remains at large, due to corruption and weak legislation. And tigers are still being smuggled into China and Vietnam, where governments have yet to demonstrate that any purchase of tigers is a serious, punishable offense.
It is hard to absorb these messages at meetings, especially ones held so far away from the problem. The Global Tiger Initiative’s secretariat is based in Washington, nine time zones away from the closest wild tiger. St. Petersburg is seven zones away from the Siberian tigers. Because of this distance, the Initiative does not rely primarily on local actors; it promotes expensive monitoring programs and calls on the United Nations and Interpol for enforcement.
Such big helping hands won’t hurt, as long as they don’t grab funds or attention from inexpensive — and more effective — field enforcement. Moscow and the World Bank should be commended for demonstrating the high-level political will to save the tiger.
They and others now need to focus on the potential that exists in the field, where enforcement teams can save the tiger with modest, consistent support coupled with legal reform. China and Vietnam need to do their part by committing themselves to shutting down all forms of tiger trade.
If tigers could speak, they’d roar for action, not more words. Let the St. Petersburg Declaration be the last, and let’s start to put our money where our fangs are.
Steven Galster, director of FREELAND Foundation, an international, Asia-based environmental group. He currently directs the ASEAN-WEN Support Program from Bangkok.