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Is this the last chance to save the tiger?

NOV 19 - For four days starting on Sunday, government leaders from the 13 countries where tigers are found, including Nepal, will be meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, to confirm a plan to conserve the tiger at the International Tiger Conservation Forum. There are only 3,200 tigers remaining in the wild today, and only a third of them may be breeding females. Viable breeding populations of tigers may no longer exist in some of the countries. The tiger forum is expected to announce a strategy to double the number of tigers in the wild over the next 12 years.

Yet, there are critical differences and questions for the summit. Can the tiger population be doubled in 12 years in the face of increasing Chinese demand for tiger body parts to be used in traditional medicine? Will it be a summit that could prove to be the last chance to save the tiger? Pragati Shahi and Amish Raj Mulmi spoke to noted scientist and researcher Prahlad Yonzon, member of Resources Himalaya, about the summit and whether it can achieve the fabled doubling of tiger population.

Yonzon, among others, is credited to have discovered tigers living at the highest altitude ever, at 3,000m, in Bhutan for the first time. He argues that the tiger forum will not achieve much unless a shift in conservation strategy is implemented, because the branding of the tiger has allowed for funds to be siphoned in the name of conservation.

International tiger conservation forum

For any resource, whether tiger or forests, there are three ways to look at it. The first is the assumption that we have about it, the second is the information, and the third is the policy that we frame. All three layers are dynamic, so today’s policies may not apply tomorrow. Today, we are under the assumption that tigers will go extinct. There is general consensus on the issue, and on the fact that we have to save it. We know there are around 3,200 tigers in the wild in the 13 Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) today, and common policy framework suggests all TRCs have to make a Herculean effort to save the tiger. There are no disagreements about this.

The meeting in Russia is to discuss the policy to save the tiger in these countries. But the issue is not whether

we have to save the tiger, which everyone agrees to, but whether we have the right information or not. The information that we have today, such as the statement made by the world’s largest conservation organisation to double the world’s tiger population in another 12 years, has got many vagaries. This statement makes one feel as if tigers are like chickens. It’s as if everyone is saying, ‘don’t worry, give me the money and when you return in 12 years, the tiger population will have doubled.’ Organisations are pushing TRCs to save the tiger, and the meeting in Russia is based on this attempt to generate the money.

The idea and objective behind this Tiger Conference is good, but there are many INGOs and NGOs free-riding on the tiger to generate funds. It’s as simple as this: what does a person in San Francisco have to do with the tiger when a tiger is killing another’s brother in his backyard?

No government or Prime Minister in the world has ever said we don’t need the tiger. But despite this, the situation is degrading. So everyone thought let’s bring the TRCs together and build consensus. And since the World Bank was interested, they approached it for the funds.

The World Bank is nothing but a financial institution. Every country was asked to write a proposal on how much money does it require to save the tiger. And who else would the World Bank ask this proposal from than the respective governments and INGOS, which in turn decided this was the right time to ask for a good sum.

But this was not the correct way. What institutions (the government, INGOs, NGOs) should have done is that they should have highlighted

their strengths and weaknesses, and that they needed certain types of programmes to overcome those weaknesses.

Let me paraphrase what I have said: there are governments; laws to protect the tiger; forests, national parks and park managers; and NGOs, INGOs and donors in each of the 13 TRCs. But why are tigers still being poached? This means there is something inherently wrong with the

system, and we have to deconstruct that system. Traditional practices will not work any more.

But having said this, I am still optimistic, and I can safely say that the tiger will not go extinct in my lifetime.

Despite that, it is time to do something radically different. Traditional ideas of conferences and workshops will not work any longer—which is what the Russia conference will end up to be. It will be another lousy ritual where big dignitaries will attend and everyone will say ‘we all need to save tigers’. If everyone has agreed to save the species, then what is the need to go there?

Nepal has asked for US $ 43 million to double its tiger population. Together, the 13 TRCs asked for US $ 540 million. But when the World Bank calculated by itself, it concluded that the world needs only US $ 35 million to save tigers. If Nepal gets US $ 1 million out of a total of proposed US $ 43 million, it should feel lucky. Donors are willing to provide only 6 percent of the total amount proposed by TRCs. This means 94 percent of the money was meant for corruption—it was meant to be ‘soft money’ which can be used for whatever we like.

Is there corruption in conservation? I think the time has come to ask this question. We may not like it, but this is the reality: ‘Brand Tiger’ brings in money. We know that only 6 percent of the total money is enough to save tigers, and that saving the tiger does not require big monetary commitments. The reason for diminishing tiger numbers is due to the failing system of conservation.

Look at India, probably the king of TRCs. It simply said, ‘we don’t need the money from the Global Tiger Initiative.’ India should be praised for this confidence, because in conservation, confidence is the greatest factor. Confidence doesn’t come from making speeches.

There are rumours that a huge chunk of the funds for tiger conservation will go to Russia. The population of the Siberian Tiger has been revived because of re-introduction. All the meta-populations there will be built into huge populations. On the other hand, China is pushing hard to legalise tiger farming. Given that situation, a small country like Nepal should work inside the country raising awareness on the issue rather than going door to door begging for

money. We have lost 800 sq. km of forests this year—which means tiger habitat is also being decimated. And the same minister who is responsible for deforestation is now advocating tiger conservation.

The way out, at least for Nepal, seems to be in changing the national park management. Right now, the Army and the Forest Department are both responsible for it. But there is no chain of command. I worked for five years in Chitwan. Every two years, the Army battalion would change and every person used to go home from Chitwan with a wooden bed made from sal tree. There are regular conflicts between the wardens and the army regarding ranks and areas of work. Their responsibilities have to be clearly delineated and should not overlap. The army has to be responsible for conservation of wildlife, while action against poachers has to be the responsibility of the park management completely. The park should also clearly define the role of buffer zone communities in saving wildlife.

Conservationists must conduct neutral research, but once a researcher is affiliated with any INGO or NGO, their research is no longer neutral. Take for example the recent tiger census. In the last three tiger censuses of 1997, 2000 and 2005, cubs formed 65 to 71 percent of the total tiger population—which is what it should be scientifically. The 2009 tiger census instead showed cubs formed only 16 percent of the total population. This was because cubs and young adults were also counted as adults, and because of this, we could claim our tiger population had risen.

Tigers are an adaptive species. They have been found in habitats ranging from saline mangroves to high altitudes. The single reason for their decreasing population is poaching. But now, we are also faced with the challenge of diminishing habitats. Tiger habitat is being increasingly fragmented, and that is because the human population is rising along the buffer zones.

What it all comes down to is the basic fact that we have swayed away from the theme of tiger conservation. The information that we have today is manipulated, and we need to do independent research to get correct data and come back on the right track. We all need to change, but nobody wants to change.

Posted on: 2010-11-20 07:49

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