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Q&A: ‘Saving Tigers is Good for Ecosystems, Biodiversity’

Marwaan Macan-Markar interviews JAMES COMPTON, Asia director of a global wildlife trade monitoring group

BANGKOK, Jan 25 2010 (IPS) - The first Asian ministerial meeting to protect the tiger, one of the world’s most storied animals, is poised to test a new commitment between government leaders, the World Bank and the global conservationist movement.

There are currently around 3,200 tigers in the wild in all 13 range states around the world, down from 5,000 to 7,000 that conservationists said were around 12 years ago. In the 1980s, the wild tiger population was estimated at 20,000.

“There has never been such attention paid to tigers,” says James Compton, Asia programme director of TRAFFIC, a global wildlife-monitoring network. “This could be a watershed moment.”

It demonstrates a shift in political will, adds the Australian national of the ministerial gathering that runs from Jan. 27-29 in Hua Hin, a beach resort town south of Bangkok, as a forerunner to the first tiger summit to be held in September this year in Vladivostok.

Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and World Bank President Robert Zoellick will co-host the summit in the Russian city for the leaders of the 13 countries where wild tigers roam. They are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Bank has declared its commitment to save the Asian predator through its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), which was launched in June 2008 to raise the profile of the endangered species on the international political agenda and to be in the vanguard of conservation efforts.

“There has never been a well-funded, long-term, concerted campaign as this,” says Compton. “We are very excited that Prime Minister Putin will be using his power to bring heads of state to discuss tigers, and by extension build networks for biodiversity conservation.”

IPS interviewed Compton in the Thai capital on the eve of the ministerial meeting.

Q: The tigers are one of the many animals on the world’s endangered species list. Yet no other animal is receiving the kind of attention being accorded to tigers now that the Global Tiger Initiative has been launched. Are we witnessing a landmark moment in wildlife conservation? A: In terms of political will, yes. The tigers have always been charismatic large predators and they have received a lot of attention. They appear in literature, are used for advertising and its logo appears on companies, so it is not like a new discovery by any means.

But because this Global Tiger Initiative is a coalition of NGOs (non- governmental organisations) and the World Bank is trying to get governments on board as participants, as donors, as implementers of efforts to save the tiger, I think there has never been such attention paid to tigers.

Q: Will this dedicated focus on tigers change the way the global conservation movement has operated till now? A: I don’t think it changes the global conservation movement. But I think what it is doing is providing an opportunity – and this is yet to be realised – for governments and through the mechanism of the World Bank and its associated financing and global power to actually put the money where their mouth is, and look at how conservation becomes more effective.

NGOs and civil society groups working on the conservation of species like the tiger can only be effective to a certain degree. For that they need cooperation with government entities and whatever community structures there are on the ground.

Q: In terms of tiger habitats, these animals can be found across many geographic areas, from the winter conditions of Siberia, the rainforests of Indonesia, the dry forests of Cambodia and Laos to the mangroves in Bangladesh and the Himalayan foothills in India. Is there any range where the tigers are safe? A: In all of these ranges we have seen tiger populations decrease markedly. It is because the tiger habitat has been converted to other land uses, where it has shrunk, where the tiger range – and they actually require a large area to roam and to find their prey – has come into contact with humans.

They are under threat because they are viewed as a threat to humans, to livestock and to areas that are being cropped for agriculture. So if you look at all those range states, I don’t think there is any place that has not witnessed a decline in tiger numbers.

Even the Siberian range, which was the one held up as an example of where the population could recover until very recently. That was the shining example. But there now is a great threat to the Siberian tiger.

Q: One of the reasons why tiger numbers have dwindled also has to do with illegal trade in tiger parts. Is such trade linked to all range states? A: I think definitely. The land conversion issue and the human-tiger conflict are very significant to what happens when the tigers are killed as a result of human conflict and then the parts get sold into the trade. There is also a very targeted poaching of tigers. There is a centuries-old trade of tiger skins and for use in traditional medicines, primarily the Chinese-derived system. And the seizures coming from South Asia have been presumed to be heading for the Chinese market.

Similarly, from South-east Asia, whether they have been seized in Thailand or Malaysia or Laos along road routes or by air, they usually travel in a northern direction (toward China).

This trade dynamic hasn’t gone away despite the fact that in 1993 China introduced a law to ban the use of tiger parts in traditional medicines. So it hasn’t been part of the legal system of traditional medicines and hasn’t been prescribed by traditional medicine practitioners. The trade ban is still in place, which is one of our greatest challenges to maintain that domestic trade ban in China.

Q: Tigers have also been hit by the illegal trade of wildlife that they need to feed on. A: That is a huge issue. It is one of the reasons why the human-tiger conflict occurs, because the tiger prey species have been depleted by hunting or poaching in the tiger habitat. So in Malaysia or Thailand or Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, the decline of the deer species and smaller mammals that the tiger would prey on results in the tiger turning to domestic livestock as an option on the menu.

Q: Indonesia and Malaysia are no doubt guilty of converting large natural forests into palm oil plantations. A: This is the type of land conversion that is most damaging, because it is large, wholesale conversion of forested lands that would be habitat for tigers, for orang-utans, for other large mammal species. These converted palm oil plantations don’t support the prey base or the biodiversity that keeps ecosystems alive. The tiger is a very important part of those ecosystems.

Q: This year has been declared as the international year to protect biodiversity. So the new campaign to protect the tigers should help the biodiversity drive go a long way? A: It is a great double-header, really. Because they do go very much hand in hand. If you look at classical conservation approaches, looking at umbrella species, what you have is an effort not only to protect tiger, but you are working to protect its habitat, its prey species, all things the prey species depends on.

So it does follow that if this big effort to protect the tiger under the GTI is a success, then you would have not only an individual species like the tiger benefiting, but the entire ecosystem and biodiversity benefiting as a result.

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