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Liz Claiborne - Wild Tigers and Hope - St. Petersburg

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Summit meetings are called to generate outcomes, often of dubious value, and income for the host city. Paris, as luxurious an ambiance as can be found anywhere has just hosted such a meeting in which it was decided that blue fin tuna were in fine health, though visibly declining in numbers. Cancun, once an upper crust beach resort is hosting a global warming summit, contentious and certain to end in disagreement, as higher water levels wash Cancun's beaches to sea.

But, skeptic that I am, I find hope in those agreed-upon outcomes, responsive to the urgent circumstances that fueled the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, November 22 to November 24. High level representatives from thirteen tiger range countries, five heads of state, and leaders of powerful, knowledgeable and persuasive NGOs, (Non-Governmental Organizations) sat together to come up with plans to keep a single species in the wild, the magnificent tiger.

Jim Leape, General Director of WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) set the tone as he took the measure of his audience. After describing and deploring, his voice rose with hope and enthusiasm that together we could keep wild tigers in the wild. The extraordinary impulse that had brought this group together to focus, for the first time in conservation history, on the survival of a single species, was reason enough to believe that the wild tiger would survive.

And so it went. All countries in attendance signed on to the Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) in which there are specific activities that governments are committed to implement. Critical was Russia's pledge to put more armed men on the ground to keep poachers at bay. Important also, the Russian government has banned the logging of Korean Pine in the tiger's habitat. Korean Pine provides a key food source for tiger prey and so its loss has had a direct impact on tigers.

Critical also was China and Russia's pledge to work together at the trans-boundary level. How seriously this pledge will be considered by the pledgers is something else again. Both countries are in the midst of uncomfortable political uncertainties in their relationship with the United States. Let us hope that the fate of the tiger is not contingent on the resolution of non-tiger issues.

Nevertheless a number of new thoughts were readily added to tiger conservation lexicography: most significantly, the concept of "source sites". Dr. John Robinson, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science got his point across. "We are committed to providing the support and assistance at those landscapes prioritized by range states. Most of those contain source sites, (italics mine) nationally important parks and reserves that contain core breeding populations of tigers which are embedded in larger tiger landscapes, and thus act as sources for dispersal throughout those landscapes." The term, "source sites" is now a concept and a term that the attendees absorbed. Implicit in this approach is the possibility of creating new source sites through translocation. Cambodia is an excellent example of a country that would serve as a translocation site. The mindset of the government is positive for tigers. The prey base is abundant.

Of major importance is the establishment of minimum standards for monitoring tigers, prey, law enforcement and trade. Without objective measures of success, how are we to judge whether efforts are succeeding and then adapt if they are not? To this end, there was a general call for the development of tools such as "SMART" (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) as a way of improving both accountability and effectiveness of basic, on-the-ground protection efforts. SMART will be an intuitive tool to record, analyze and display protection efforts in a way that is easy for rangers and protected area staff. It is a strong, motivational tool for the men and women whose job it is to protect the last wild tigers. This new tool would be free, be in the language of the range-state countries, and be open to all.

And now for what didn't happen in St. Petersburg. Despite the ongoing talk of needed funds, perhaps some three hundred million dollars or more, the Tiger Range Countries (or at least most of them) spent much time bemoaning the fact that they didn't have the funds to save tigers. A breakdown of funds available would be tedious: for instance funds allocated by The World Bank through the GEF (Global Environment Facility) is already in the pipelines and in many cases tied to specific objectives that pre-date the summit meeting. All in all, there is much cause for concern when assessing the culture of multilateral and bilateral funding. Thailand, on the other hand, stated that it is going to invest in tiger conservation and invited others to join them.

There is also the overriding concern that issuing an alarm to raise huge sums of money without a clear understanding as to how those funds would be integrated into coherent programs on the ground is an invitation to mayhem and corruption. The funding discussed is unabsorbable. We at the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation have learned to insist on clearly understood objectives, on transfusing funds as objectives are realized with a heavy emphasis on monitoring results.

The biggest contribution that could emerge from the St. Petersburg event is the realization that tiger conservation is a responsibility and "fashionable" and not just something that conservationists worry about. To this end we must identify and belabor those who consider donor funds as private income and those who find it politically expeditious to continue to trade in tiger parts.

As I write, I note an Associated Press release, Friday, December 3, 2010: Vietnam's planned sale of tiger paste protested. The article goes on to state that though "Vietnam bans the hunting or trade of wild animals and their products, the Ministry of Agriculture has issued a directive allowing its use in making medicines." This flagrant event takes place after signing on to the Global Tiger Recovery Program.

Nobody promised a thorn-free bed of roses. But thorns or not, here is an email I received from a long-term conservation biologist, a man possessed with a towering love and respect for tigers; "The summit was of course filled with much pomp and ceremony, but I think there was significant progress. I think the impact of the summit is going to vary from country to country. For Russia I think the fact that Prime Minister Putin has come out so clearly on Russia's strong will to save wild tigers there will be great pressure to implement the strategy to do so. This is a good strategy if the key components are implemented. So the final word, of course, is still out, but I think things look good."

Agreed. St. Petersburg did not conclude as a zero sum event. We now know that if the effort is made, the magnificent tiger, this monument to the beauty of life, will be with us for generations to come, and those who participated will have made an enduring contribution to life on this planet.