National Geographic News
A new World Bank-led tiger conservation initiative will draw on the collective might of the world's nonprofits, governments, and local citizens to prevent tigers from completely "slipping away," experts announced today at a press conference with Indiana Jones actor Harrison Ford.
The predators have plummeted from 100,000 to 4,000 in the past century and now occupy only 7 percent of their original range.
The "urgent, immediate threat" of poaching continues to whittle down that number, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group, told a press briefing at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The new initiative will take a hard look at existing projects in tiger habitats, review existing efforts to combat the trade in illegal tiger parts, and develop alternative funding for saving tigers, among other strategies.
In addition, a 2010 "Year of the Tiger" summit will bring together the many groups and individuals working to preserve the big cat.
"If wild tigers are to be saved, they must be seen as more valuable alive than dead," Zoellick said. (See tiger photos.)
Because tigers are at the top of the food chain, their health is an "indicator of biodiversity and a barometer for sustainability," he added.
Partner organizations include the International Tiger Coalition, the National Zoo, and the Global Environment Facility.
The "great preservers of the past"—inaccessibility and poverty—no longer shield tigers from humans, who are poaching and trafficking the animals at an unprecedented rate, said John Seidensticker, a conservation biologist at the National Zoo.
As Asian economies flourish, the demand for tiger meat and parts for traditional Chinese medicine and trophies has wiped out most of the tigers living in reserves. (See a photo of an illegal tiger skin for sale in Myanmar [Burma].)
The big cats, which once prowled most of Asia, have already disappeared from Central Asia and almost all of China.
In the face of development pressures, the new initiative should also focus on how to balance habitat conservation with the needs of local people in countries where tigers still roam, experts said.
Actor Harrison Ford, vice chair of the board of directors of the nonprofit Conservation International—one of the groups that will participate in the new plan—emphasized that local people should have a say.
"I recognize that these projects work more efficiently and more sustainably when local communities are involved," Ford told National Geographic News. "That's the general reality of the situation."
"I've seen how conservation outcomes are scaled up when a variety of people pool together to apply their influence," he said.
(Related: "Tigers Pitted Against Tribes by Indian Forest Law" [December 5, 2007].)
In general, tigers can recover if their habitat is protected, conservationists say.
And ASEAN-WEN, a network of Asian countries committed to halting wildlife crime inside their borders, is a promising first step, said the Zoo's Seidensticker. The network complements the international treaty CITES, which bans illegal trafficking of endangered species.
But tigers will rebound only with strong political will and only if everyone involved—from local people to governments—demands that they survive, Seidensticker said. Conservation projects largely remain underfunded and low-priority in many tiger-inhabited countries.
"A world without tigers would be a world without hope," Seidensticker said. "It would be like a clear night sky without stars."
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