November 22, 2010

World Leaders Come Together For Global Tiger Initiative

World leaders on Sunday sought out ways to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars needed to save tigers from the brink of extinction and bring their numbers up twofold by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin opened his native city of St. Petersburg to the world's first gathering of leaders from 13 nations that are home to wild tigers that are being threatened with extinction due to poaching.

Jim Adams, vice president for the East Asia and Pacific Region at the World Bank, during the opening ceremony of the four-day event said: "This is an unprecedented gathering of world leaders (that aims) to double the number of tigers."

"The global tiger initiative is an example of balanced economic development with nature preservation," Adams said.

The World Wildlife Fund and other experts say less than 3,200 tigers remain in the wild today, plunging from an estimated 100,000 a hundred years ago.

James Leape, director general of the WWF, told the meeting that if proper protective measures are not taken now, tigers will most likely disappear by the next Year of the Tiger.

The World Bank estimates that it will take at least 350 million dollars to support efforts to fight poachers and introduce incentives for nature preservation over the next five years.

The Russian tiger summit approved a wide-ranging program with the goal of doubling tiger populations in the wild over the next 12 years backed by governments of the 13 nations with tiger populations: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam and Russia.

The Global Tiger Recovery Program will be seeking donor commitments to help governments finance conservation measures.

"For most people tigers are one of the wonders of the world," Leape told The Associated Press. "In the end, the tigers are the inspiration and the flagship for much broader efforts to conserve forests and grasslands."

The program aims to protect tiger habitats, eliminate poaching, smuggling, and illegal trade of tigers and their parts, and also create incentives for local communities to engage them in helping protect the big cats.

Putin, who has used his encounters with tigers and other wild animals to strengthen his image, is hosting the four-day event that is driven by the Global Tiger Initiative which was launched two years ago by World Bank president Robert Zoellick.

Leape said that along with forceful actions against poaching, there also needs to be specialized reserves and forests outside them to let tigers expand.

"And you have to find a way to make it work for the local communities so that they would be partners in tigers conservation and benefit from them," said Leape.

"To save tigers you need to save the forests, grasslands and lots of other species," he added. "But at the same time you are also conserving the foundations of the societies who live there. Their economy depends very much on the food, water and materials they get from those forests."

Russia's Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev said that Russia and China will create a protected area for tigers alongside their border and pool resources to combat poaching.

Leape said that for some of the nations involved outside financing would be crucial to fulfill goals. "We need to see significant commitment by the multilateral and bilateral institutions like the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank plus individual governments like the U.S. and Germany," Leape told The Associated Press.

For advocates, saving tigers has implications far beyond the emotional appeal of preserving a graceful and majestic animal.

"Wild tigers are not only a symbol of all that is splendid, mystical and powerful about nature," the Global Tiger Initiative said in a statement. "The loss of tigers and degradation of their ecosystems would inevitably result in a historic, cultural, spiritual, and environmental catastrophe for the tiger range countries."

Much has been done in recent years to try to save tigers, but conservation groups say their numbers and habitats have continued to decline by 40 percent in the past decade alone.

The decline is partially due to conservation efforts that have been increasingly diverse and often aimed at improving habitats outside protected areas where tigers can breed, according to a study published in September in the PLoS Biology journal.

Putin has done much to draw attention to tigers' plight. He shot a female tiger with a tranquilizer gun at a wildlife preserve in 2008 and helped place a transmitter around her neck as part of a tracking program.

Russia is the only country to have seen its tiger population rise in recent years. In the 1960s there were only 80 to 100 tigers in the wild in Russia. Now, with Putin taking an active role in the cause, the country has more than 500 tigers in the wild.

Experts say India and China are by far the biggest players in saving tigers.

India is home to half of the world's total tiger population while China remains the world's biggest consumers of tiger products despite worldwide bans.

"In China, things are going from bad to worse," Alex Vaisman, of the WWF, told AFP. "But it is hard for the Chinese authorities, who are fighting against a millennium-old tradition."

Jia Zhibang, the head of China's forestry administration, admitted Saturday that Chinese authorities had allowed "some exceptions" to a 1993 law that banned the use of tiger parts in Chinese medicine.

But he insisted that China is now ready to join the new emergency conservation plan. "We are ready to cooperate with the World Bank and the other countries seeking to save the tiger," Zhibang said.


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