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The St. Petersburg Tiger Summit : hopefully more than political posturing

November 15, 2010
Siberian-Tiger-cub_photographer-PittsburghZoo.

Siberian Tiger cub: photographer Pittsburgh Zoo.

I am stumped. I have absolutely no idea why the tiger sits so precariously on the edge of extinction. The species are as iconic as they get.

Their majesty is irrefutable; their beauty remarkable; their poetry and strength utterly, utterly unchallengeable.

The tigers of Bali, Java and the Caspian are already extinct and the tigers of South China can now only be seen in zoos. In fact just 3,200 tigers still roam free in the world, carving of what existence they can in the meager areas left of their homes. They are solitary, territorial predators that naturally roam across vast tracts of land, sometimes areas as large as 800 square kilometers.

* The St. Petersburg Tiger Summit commences on 21st November 2010. *

These are animals that need big spaces, which is the crux of the problem. It is difficult to protect big areas from poachers, without significant Government commitment and fundamental political will to stamp out the poaching and illegal trade.

Last week Patrick Barkham wrote a piece for the Guardian One last chance: can we save the tiger? He asks the fundamental questions – Why are tigers still dying in parks and protection zones created specifically for them and why, if trade in tiger parts is illegal, is it still flourishing?

Traffic’s recent report Reduced to Skin and Bones is sobering reading. The vast majority of seizures of parts from illegally killed tigers, including skeletons, claws and skins, were in India, China and Nepal. Over 1000 animals have been killed for these body parts in the past decade.

I understand the Global Tiger Initiative is building momentum towards the St. Petersburg Tiger Summit, and hopefully the adoption of a declaration on tiger conservation, but none of this actually equals conservation action, and a lot of it reads like a mechanism to keep political wheels spinning.

So, while I agree with Barkham, I would add to the list of conundrums – why did Russia invest so much energy in taking the tiger’s cause to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD

The Global Tiger Initiative praised the CBD talks saying:

“… all tiger range countries came together on a common platform to exchange knowledge and best practices and then to agree on a shared goal of doubling the number of wild tigers across the range from about 3,200 today to 7,000 by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.”

Beyond that, their media statement says precious little else. So I can’t quite get to the crux of why they invested so much effort to be there, unless it was simply so that it ‘looked’ like something was happening.

A few weeks later, Government officials hashed out the final substantive issues of the Global Tiger Recovery Program in Delhi, finalizing a draft document that aims to deliver the doubling of current tiger populations by the 2022 target. Again, there are some nice words, but I am left to wonder – Is the summit more about political posturing than about actual tiger conservation action? I hope not.

Let me explain what I mean. CBD has become renowned as one of the most complex and bureaucratic in the conservation field. It has been grappling, for many years, with how to qualify and quantify ‘biodiversity loss’ and ‘biodiversity protection’. Almost none of what is discussed at the CBD meeting moves out of this cold and clinical ‘speak’. CBD’s work is important – don’t get me wrong – but CBD has become a numbers game on par with the climate change process. To the people deeply involved in CBD, tigers are merely a component of biodiversity. To these technocrats the tiger is not an entity worthy of protection for its own sake – they only see its value as an indicator of something larger and more complex – the ecosystem in which it lives.

Russia knows all of this as well as anyone else involved, yet they invested energy in profiling the tiger’s cause at the CBD meeting. Coalition Partners are presumably building momentum for a consensus statement,  but without any legal framework or structure to oversee it. It seems that Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam have all decided to overlook one of the most important conventions designed specifically to aid in species conservation – Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and I don’t know why … unless they mean to birth a paper tiger.

Dr Alan Rabinowitz, President and CEO of Panthera, asks the same question about political will from another angle. In his interview with Barkham, Rabinowitz says that conservationists are not being held accountable for tiger losses.

“I’m frustrated because the international conservation community is not pulling itself together. It’s hiding behind trees. … We know how to save tigers. It is not brain surgery. Tigers breed really well. Protect them, and they come back pretty quickly but none of the areas are being protected.”

I fear that Rabinowitz might be right. Only about half the organizations I would expect to see line up at this summit appear to be going. Rumors are that key players like China may not even attend the summit.  Barkam makes the comment that:

” … some conservationists feel the participants [who will attend] are remote bureaucrats with no experience of the on-the-ground realities. Others are refusing to go at all.”

Rabinowitz says the tiger summit is devoting too much time and resources to side issues such as education and carbon emission allowances to preserve tiger habitat.

“Money has not been focused on the one thing that will save tigers immediately, and that’s adequate protection of the protected areas [from poachers],” he says.

He calls it ‘money for political correctness’.

Rabinowitz seems to be backed by some fairly sane and logical arguments. Bringing the Tiger Back from the Brink—The Six Percent Solution was recently published by an impressive group of experts and scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Panthera, IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, Global Environment Facility, The World Bank and the Universities of Minnesota and Cambridge. Their peer-reviewed paper essentially says current approaches to tiger conservation are not slowing the decline in tiger numbers. Commitments should shift to focus on protecting tigers at spatially well-defined priority sites, supported by proven best practices of law enforcement, wildlife management, and scientific monitoring. Conflict with local people needs to be mitigated. There are established international tools and systems already available to help the range States work their way through all of this. A summit and a declaration is not necessarily going to cross the line.

So, once again I feel compelled to circuit back to the question on my mind. Is the summit more about political posturing than about actual tiger conservation action? Despite writing it all down, I am still stumped.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink*
    November 16, 2010 10:01 pm

    It can be really disheartening to read this stuff. How can we get the world out of this mess.

    Why do they need to have a summit anyway. Can’t they just get their act together? I don’t get it

  2. Jacinta Ray permalink*
    November 16, 2010 10:06 pm

    With you Paul.

    I was reading Patrick Barkham’s article too, and seems to me that there are lots of ‘silverbacks’ around saving tigers. Whats the world bank doing involved. Isn’t that strange?

    I am amazed so many tiger species are gone. I didn’t know that.

    Margi, are you going to cover the summit?

  3. a-voice-in-the-wilderness permalink*
    November 16, 2010 10:30 pm

    Man they are beautiful. Makes me sick to think of ’em being killed

  4. November 17, 2010 9:57 am

    Hi Jacinta. Great to hear from you again!
    Yes, I am a bit bemused by the ‘silverback’ syndrome with this issue. Perhaps it is something about mystique of tigers …
    I wont be at the summit itself, but watching it carefully from here. I plan to write an update post as soon as I have news of the outcomes

  5. November 17, 2010 9:58 am

    Thanks for your comment Paul. Its a great question.

    In a perfect world, yes, they should be able to get their act together!

    Unfortunately, in my humble experience at least, countries have so many tangled and vested interests that they need a framework to help them come to agreement. I have found CMS and CITES to be the best frameworks for wildlife. CBD, is about something else entirely.

    Why they need a summit is similar. They want a space to be able to have a focused inter-Governmental discussion. Why I am skeptical, is that once they agree on something what can the summit do then? If they had worked through CMS or CITES, then the framework would be able take them to the next stage of building some rules and scheduled between them.

  6. November 17, 2010 9:58 am

    With you on that one a-voice-in-the-wilderness. Thanks for your comment

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