Can the tiger be saved from extinction? That's the goal of the International Forum on Tiger Conservation, a gathering of government leaders and conservationists in St. Petersburg, Russia, this week. Organized by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of all people, the Tiger Forum will culminate in the signing of what is being called the St. Petersburg Declaration—an affirmation by the 13 countries with tiger populations to not only preserve their wild tigers, but to more than double their populations by the year 2022.
Wildlife groups say that this really is a do or die moment for tigers. According to the World Wildlife Fund, tigers could be extinct in the wild by that same year of 2022 if dramatic steps are not taken immediately.
Achieving the Declaration's goals won't be easy. Tiger populations have plummeted from 100,000 a century ago to just 3,200 today. Even that number doesn't tell the full story. The 3,200 wild tigers are divided among six sub-species (one of which may already be extinct in the wild) and spread out among 13 countries. Many populations are already so small that they are suffering from genetic bottlenecks. Others are immensely vulnerable to poaching and habitat encroachment. And no countries sufficiently punish people who kill tigers or illegally traffic in their skins or body parts.
So how will the 13 tiger nations achieve this goal? Promises within the St. Petersburg Declaration include making core tiger breeding areas "inviolate"; combating poaching through increased patrols, regional law enforcement and strengthened international cooperation; engaging local communities so they understand the importance of tigers; and asking for a lot of funding from the World Bank, NGOs, foundations and other organizations. (You can read the entire draft declaration here.)
Meanwhile, the Forum will also provide a place to present other new ideas in tiger conservation and research into the problems tigers face. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is calling for the protection of the 42 "source sites" it identified in September, saying these specific locations offer the greatest and most cost-effective opportunities to save tigers from poachers and habitat loss. WCS has also announced it has raised pledges of $5 million a year for the next 10 years toward conserving these source sites. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, announced a major agreement with the Wa ethnic minority group in Myanmar to shut down markets where hundreds of poached tigers have been sold for use in Chinese traditional medicine. Yadvendradev Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India announced a more affordable way to track and count tiger populations using paw prints and feces rather than expensive and labor-intensive camera traps (his study was published in the November 19 issue of Journal of Applied Ecology). India, whose tiger population has dropped by at least 50 percent in the last decade, is preparing to announce the results of the first new tiger census in that country since 2002. And Russia announced a bad on logging Korean Pine, a tree species which the Amur tiger relies upon indirectly for its survival (the tree's cones are food for wild boars, upon which the tigers then prey).
Unfortunately, the week before the Tiger Forum was also marked by several pieces of bad news. In Indonesia, a female Sumatran tiger was killed after it purportedly "ripped apart" two illegal loggers and four other people whom the tigress may have believed had stolen her cub. According to NBC News, at least 15 people have been killed by tigers in that region of Sumatra since the beginning of 2009, where logging has put humans and cats into a conflict that did not used to exist. In India, two officers in charge of the country's first major tiger relocation program have been found guilty of dereliction of duty after a male Bengal tiger was killed, possibly by poisoning. And in Russia, an Amur tiger (Russia's "home" tiger species) was killed by poachers in a protected reserve. The poachers were captured, but if convicted, they face a tiny prison sentence of up to three years and a potential $20,000 fine.
Outside of the conference, a "conservation economist" from South Africa and a "conservation policy analyst" from Singapore have used the occasion of the Tiger Forum to put up a web site called Tiger Economics, essentially calling for free trade in tiger parts as a way to make the black market less attractive. The authors endorse for-profit tiger farming and an end to the existing trade ban, saying it will benefit wild tigers—a ludicrous argument I debunked a year and a half ago.
So what comes next? In a prepared statement, Michael Baltzer, head of WWF's Tigers Alive initiative, said the Tiger Forum "must serve as a launching pad for global efforts to save tigers." The WWF is calling for strong government action and funding, "because frankly, without the appropriate scale of manpower and money, we're going to keep losing tigers," he added.
Jean-Christoph Vie of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told BBC News, "If you leave tigers alone and don't kill them and don't poach them, then naturally they will double in 10 years." Let's hope they get that chance. The clock is ticking.
Photo: Tiger skin on sale in Myanmar, June 2010 – Adam Oswell/TRAFFIC