Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation

The "Year of the Tiger," the lunar Chinese New Year, was celebrated on February 14, 2010. Once every twelve years, tigers are honored for their transcendent beauty and for the physical and psychic prowess their parts are believed to offer humans. Tragically, the continued survival of wild tigers until the next "Year of the Tiger" in 2022 remains uncertain.

Tiger numbers are difficult to state with precision. There are perhaps somewhat more than 3,000 left in the wild. What is not difficult to state is that there is a well-organized criminal trade in tigers, tiger parts and tiger prey, mainly headed for China. And as China enjoys greater affluence, the internal market place for wild tiger products, grows stronger and more demanding. In a recent report, TRAFFIC-The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network described the tigers current plight succinctly.

"The reason for the continuing demise of the wild tiger is overwhelmingly the demand for bones, skin, meat and virtually every part that comprises a tiger. Claws and teeth are used for jewelry and good luck charms. Eyeballs are used to treat epilepsy, bile to stop convulsions, whiskers to soothe toothache and penises as a potent sexual tonic. It is this exploding demand in China that has led to the diversification of organized crime gangs running tiger trafficking operations. The most readily available and cheapest part of the killing gang: willing poachers in all parts of the tiger's range."

So, what is the planned strategy of the world's key policy-makers now that the saving of wild tigers is fast becoming a global responsibility? In October 2009, scientists and government representatives from the 13 tiger-range countries attending a workshop in Katmandu called for "immediate action to save tigers before the species disappears from the wild" and recommended specific actions necessary to "stop the tigers decline and achieve the goal of doubling the population of wild tigers within the next ten years."

The recommendations were then presented at the First Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation held in Bangkok in January 2010. The attending ministers, in turn, issued the Hua Hin Declaration on Tiger Conservation calling for protection of "wild tigers and their prey base from poaching, and critical tiger habitats from encroachment, through smart patrolling, trans-boundary coordination, and elimination of international trade of tigers, tiger parts, and derivatives through effective laws and their enforcement, at national and international levels."

In July 2010 representatives from the 13 tiger-range countries met in Indonesia to draft a global recovery plan in preparation for the Global Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The summit took place on November 22nd through the 24th. High level representatives from all 13 tiger-range countries, including five heads of state, were joined by principals from key donor agencies and conservation organizations to endorse the Global Tiger Recovery Program "with the shared goal of doubling the number of wild tigers globally by 2022 through actions to:

  • Effectively manage, preserve, protect, and enhance tiger habitats;
  • Eradicate poaching, smuggling, and illegal trade of tigers, their parts, and derivatives;
  • Cooperate in transboundary landscape management and in combating illegal trade;
  • Engage with indigenous and local communities;
  • Increase the effectiveness of tiger and habitat management; and
  • Restore tigers to their former range."

Particularly important was acceptance of the concept of tiger "source sites" and the corresponding identification of 22 such sites composed of parks and protected areas that support viable breeding populations of tigers and are embedded in larger landscapes encompassing suitable tiger habitat. If adequately protected and managed, source sites will provide for dispersal and recovery of tiger populations throughout the surrounding landscapes.

All of the range states had previously adopted individual National Tiger Recovery Priorities outlining critical activities that each needs and intends to undertake. These are outlined in the Global Tiger Recovery Program, as are the bilateral and multilateral efforts necessary to address the illegal trade and coordinate transboundary protection and management. Some initial country-specific actions were reiterated at the summit, although fewer than one might have hoped:

  • China's commitment to restore tiger habitat and stop poaching and illegal trade;
  • Russia's and China's agreement to collaborate in stopping the cross-border trade;
  • Russia's intention to expand the protected area network in the Far East, increase protection efforts outside protected areas and ban logging of Korean pine, a key food source for tiger prey; and
  • Thailand's statement that it is going to make the necessary investment in tiger conservation.

The Global Tiger Recovery Program estimates the cost of implementing the National Tiger Recovery Priorities and necessary "Global Support Programs" at $350 million over five years. Whether these funds can be raised and, more importantly, spent efficiently and productively is open to serious question given the troubling culture and history of such large-scale multilateral and bilateral funding initiatives.

What cannot be over emphasized is the absolute and immediate necessity of protecting tiger source sites against the growing onslaught of the illegal wildlife trade. In a recent paper, Bringing Back the Tiger from the Brink -- The Six Percent Solution, scientists from key conservation organizations estimate that the average cost of protecting and monitoring tiger populations effectively at all 42 source sites, which represent only 6% of the tigers current range, at $82 million per year. The range-state governments and to a very small extent international donors and conservation organizations are estimated to contribute $47 million per year toward this cost, leaving a shortfall of $35 million per year. This funding is crucial to ensure the tiger's survival in the wild and must be committed immediately, if range-state governments and donors are serious about saving the tiger.

Whether high level affirmations of concern, accompanying policy declarations, and iterations of necessary actions and corresponding funding needs translate into protection of tigers on the ground remains to be seen. For its part, the foundation has invested over $13 million in the past decade to help protect and restore tiger populations at important sites in India, China, Malaysia, Sumatra, Thailand and the Russian Far East.

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