Sunday, October 17, 2010
Leaders of the few remaining countries where tigers are still found in the wild are preparing for a make-or-break summit in Russia, which they believe offers the last chance to save the critically endangered animal.
The Global Tiger Summit in St Petersburg next month will bring together the 13 countries that still have wild tigers, along with conservation organisations, in an attempt to thrash out a global recovery plan. Britain and the US are also being urged to attend.
The WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) says it is optimistic about the summit’s chances of success, but warns that failure will lead to the extinction of the tiger across much of Asia. The draft communique for the summit, seen by the Observer, notes that in the past decade tiger numbers worldwide have fallen by 40% and warns that “Asia’s most iconic animal faces imminent extinction in the wild”.
It concludes: “By the adoption of this, the St Petersburg Declaration, the tiger range countries of the world call upon the international community to join us in turning the tide and setting the tiger on the road to recovery.”
The challenge was illustrated clearly last week when hidden camera footage showed the destruction of part of the Sumatran tigers’ Indonesian forest home to make way for illegal palm oil plantations. Meanwhile, in Singapore undercover officers seized several tiger skins that had been advertised for sale online.
Organisers of the summit, which is backed by the World Bank, hope agreements can be reached that will lead to a doubling of tiger numbers by 2022. But some conservationists fear it is already too late and the summit will be another talking shop that fails to deliver results.
Tiger numbers worldwide have collapsed from an estimated 100,000 over the past century, due to poaching and human encroachment. It is now thought there are no more than 3,200 tigers in the wild, of which only about 1,000 are breeding females. The situation is so critical that four of the 13 countries attending the summit – China, Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea – no longer have viable breeding populations, according to a study released last month.
The study – produced by researchers from Cambridge University, the World Bank and the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society – concluded that “current approaches to tiger conservation are not slowing the decline in tiger numbers, which has continued unabated over the last two decades”.
It recommended that, rather than trying to save all the remaining tigers, governments should concentrate on sites that provided the most realistic chance of supporting a breeding population. “Conflict with local people needs to be mitigated. We argue that such a shift in emphasis would reverse the decline of wild tigers and do so in a rapid and cost-efficient manner.”
The study will have made uncomfortable reading for the host nation. It found there had been a “dramatic decline” in tiger numbers in the Russian far east over the past five years – understood to be about a 15% drop – which it associated with a decline in anti-poaching enforcement.
The Siberian tiger – also known as the Amur tiger – nearly went extinct in the middle of the last century, when numbers fell below 50, but there are now thought to be more than 400 left in the wild. Suggestions that numbers have dipped again will not have pleased Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who will be hosting the summit and who has been keen to portray himself as a rugged protector of the animals.
In 2008 he accepted a tiger cub as a birthday present (the donor was never disclosed) and in the same year was at the centre of an extraordinary drama when it was claimed that he shot an Amur tiger with a tranquilliser dart to save the lives of a television crew. The team had been filming him taking part in a conservation exercise when the animal apparently broke free and charged.
But not only Russia is struggling to save the tiger. Earlier this year the Observer revealed how India’s tiger population remained in decline, with some conservationists estimating that only 800 remained in the wild, significantly fewer than the official claim of 1,411.
Events in India in recent weeks have demonstrated just how great the challenge is. In the Panna reserve, which had to be restocked from other national parks last year, two young tigers have gone missing and are presumed dead. The human-tiger conflict for land was illustrated when three people in Uttar Pradesh, just 150km from the national capital Delhi, were attacked in an area not previously associated with tigers.
In Indonesia, a hidden WWF camera shot footage of a rare Sumatran tiger in the forests of Bukit Betabuh. Later, the same camera filmed a bulldozer clearing the area – apparently for a palm oil plantation – and then recorded the tiger returning to the scene of devastation.
But despite the gloomy picture the summit’s backers remain optimistic. Diane Walkington, the WWF’s head of species programme in the UK, said that considerable progress had already been made to sketch out a global recovery plan and to concentrate the minds of politicians on the problem.
“Tiger numbers can recover, but you can never take your eye off the ball,” she said. “We are down to 3,200 and that is a really low number.” The solution, she said, was international co-operation to tackle issues such as smuggling. She cited deals between China and Nepal as an example of how that can bear dividends. But she warned that, with numbers so low, the tiger would not get another chance. “I think that if this is not a success we will see tigers going extinct in much of Asia,” she said.
Some conservationists worry that the summit is more about politicians wanting to be seen to be doing something, rather than tackling the issues on the ground, such as the encroachment into tigers’ traditional territory by poor farmers in search of land.
Aditya Singh, a conservationist and wildlife photographer who spends much of his time among the tigers of India’s Ranthambore national park, said previous summits had involved a group of leaders seeking answers to a problem they did not understand.
“There is little or no ground-level representation. As a result, the real practical problems never get highlighted,” he said. “There is no link between field workers and conservation leaders. They do not even know each other’s problems and the conservation efforts are not co-ordinated. Kind of like the climate summit.”
The “tiger range” countries attending the conference are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
* Endangered species
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