HUA HIN, Thailand — Efforts to save the wild tiger are at a critical point and it will take greater political will and cooperation from Asian countries to prevent the big cats from becoming extinct, conservationists and the World Bank warned Wednesday.
The dire message was offered to 13 tiger range states attending the first Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation. The aim of the three-day meeting is to convince countries to pledge to spend more on tiger conservation and set targets for boosting their numbers – vows that would then be finalized by heads of state in September at a meeting in Vladivostok, Russia.
"There will be no room left for tigers and other wildlife in Asia without a more responsible and sustainable program for economic growth and infrastructure," World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in a video message to the 180 delegates.
"The tiger may be only one species, but the tigers' plight highlights the biodiversity crisis in Asia," he said.
Thailand's Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Suwit Khunkitti told delegates the time had come for his fellow ministers to commit to "bold commitments and actions so that we can collectively turn the tide of extinction on the tiger."
Tiger numbers have plummeted because of human encroachment, the loss of more than nine-tenths of their habitat, and poaching to supply the vibrant trade in tiger parts. From an estimated 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, the number today is less than 3,600.
John Seidensticker, head of conservation ecology at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund, recalled how he watched the Javan and Bali tigers disappear in the 20th century, adding that "losing a tiger is like losing a very close, dear relative and I'm still saddened by that experience."
He said conservationists have over the years been successful in banning trade in tiger parts, outlawing hunting and boosting protection measures. But he said he and others never foresaw the breakneck economic development in Asia that would "pave over" key tiger forests and grasslands and create a market for tiger parts that has caused poaching to skyrocket.
Still, Seidensticker and others said the meeting itself offered hope, showing that the bid to save tigers has gone beyond passionate environmentalists and scientists and is now being embraced by government officials and key donors like the World Bank.
The meeting is being organized by Thailand and the Global Tiger Initiative, a coalition formed in 2008 by the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institute and nearly 40 conservation groups. It aims to double tiger numbers by 2022.
"That this meeting is happening is hugely important," said John Robinson, executive vice president of conservation and science for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Robinson said the political will to save the tigers must be strengthened, funding increased for impoverished countries where tigers remain and forests expanded to ensure that tigers and humans don't clash – a problem especially common in India and Indonesia.
Relocating communities is an option as long as the villagers are compensated adequately, Robinson said.
The World Bank said countries must work to minimize the impact of roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects on tiger habitat – something the bank has vowed to do in projects it funds. It also called on countries to better train and equip their forest rangers and reduce corruption in the government agencies tasked with running national parks and protected areas.
"Corruption has been rampant and all pervasive in some of the countries as far as forest management is concerned," said Keshav Varma, the Global Tiger Initiative's program director, told delegates. "Corruption is gradually and persistently nibbling away at our natural resources. The politics of money is drowning out the weak voices of the tiger and the poor."
The 13 countries attending the meeting are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.