Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Chinese tiger branded ‘Extinct’ by the World Bank celebrates his 7th month birthday.

It might come as a surprise to ‘Hulooo’ and his siblings at Save China’s Tiger’s Laohu Valley Tiger Reserve, that the World Bank considers him and other South China tigers as extinct. The bank’s recently announced Tiger Conservation Initiative lists the subspecies as ‘extinct in the 1990’s’, ignoring that there are 7 tigers at the SCT reserve, another 67 South China Tigers in zoos in China and the fact that some scientists think that 20 or 30 might still exist in remote regions of China. The international body, IUCN lists them as ‘critically endangered’.

You might ask how it is possible for such a large prestigious organization to make such a blatant mistake. You might ask some of the reports authors and contributors who belong to the initiative’s ‘partners’ One of the World Bank report’s contributors, Sue Lieberman, director of WWF’s Global Species Programme has previously said: “Quan’s decision to re-wild the tigers in South Africa proves that there is simply no room for them in China’s disappearing wilderness” and adds, “We can save the tiger, but we shouldn’t put our efforts into the South China tiger.”

Lieberman’s target, Li Quan, a Beijing born former fashion executive and founder of conservation group ‘Save China’s Tigers’ shakes her head at the Bank’s report, “It makes our fund-raising efforts a lot more difficult when an organization like the World Bank declares that the majestic animal you are desperately trying to save went extinct decades ago. This is a national treasure of China. This is the ancestral subspecies of all other tigers. We’re not going to turn our backs on them just because it’s a huge challenge to save them”.

When Quan and her husband Stuart Bray formed Save China’s Tigers, little was being done to save the big cat and Quan recognized the situation was desperate and something had to be done right away. Their action plan was bold, ambitious and unprecedented. In Nov. 2002, Save China’s Tigers signed an historic agreement with the Chinese government on the ‘Reintroduction of the Chinese Tigers into the Chinese Wild’. SCT funded several surveys in Southern China to identify and establish vast protected reserves. These reserves would be stocked with prey species and zoo-bred tigers that had been ‘rewild’ trained to hunt and survive on their own again. Bray (an investment banker) has worked hard to develop creative financial and infrastructure strategies involving eco-tourism and even carbon-credits to support the reserves.

To fast-track the training, SCT went the home of conservation and re-wilding expertise; South Africa, establishing a huge 300 square kilometre protected reserve bordering the Orange River and staffed it with experienced wildlife managers. SCT’s Bray puts the choice in stark terms: "If we wait until the Chinese habitat is prepared, some scientists predict the tigers will be extinct before the land is ready." Laohu Valley Reserve is now home to 4 China tigers that have successfully undergone a re-wild training program and can now hunt ungulates. Thriving in the grasslands, their vast camps are protected by electric fencing. A recently opened breeding centre has witnessed unprecedented success with the birth of three cubs in the last six months – some of the very few South China tigers born anywhere in the last 3 years. Quan says there’s more on the way and attributes the success in part to the natural environment.

However it has come as a big surprise that their conservation efforts met with indifference and sometimes outright hostility from some big environmental groups. Putting aside the professional jealousies’ and venomous personal attacks – (one organization’s tiger projects co-ordinator called Li Quan a ‘dilettante’ and suggested that “she leave conservation for the conservationists” in a World Street Journal article in Sept 2003), public criticism of the SCT project is full of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘maybes’. One organization’s report gleefully points out a minor SCT spelling mistake. Another evidences glaring ignorance of the project and suggests: “reintroduction of this animal is pointless if there is no habitat in which it can succeed”, ignoring SCT plans to establish vast protected reserves in China. In recent years the opposition from such big organizations has been more private than public and yet more damaging. When Bray talks to potential funders these days they will often seek a second opinion on the project and where do they go to? Bray says several funding projects have been cancelled due to negative reports from one organization.

There are many talented conservationists and scientists who fully support SCT’s project and indeed provide direct consultation and direction. Speaking of SCT’s effort, a well respected big cat field biologist said, “Conservation and strategies to conserve wildlife and wild places has been and will continue to be an ‘experiment’. The conservation community must acknowledge that any strategy to ‘save’ or ‘conserve’ a species or natural area is an scientific ‘experiment’ and that any strategy, if it is to succeed, must adapt and evolve to our changing understandings of what works and what does not work. To be successful any conservation strategy must be responsive to the needs of the species and people and must be willing to adapt when the objectives or goals are not being met.”

He continues: “Efforts to conserve the South China Tiger are a worthwhile endeavor. The challenges are great, and will require efforts and strategies not tested before. Saving the South China Tiger from extinction and as part of natural systems in China will require innovative and bold approaches, commitment and intensive management strategies, and perhaps understandings and skills we in the biological and conservation community may not possess or appreciate. We need to reach out to people outside our profession: sociologist, religious leaders, and people with skills in the business world. It is we humans and our economies that have placed species at peril, and it is only we that can throw a ‘life line’ to ensure a species persistence. If only a single person has the commitment and resources to take on such a challenge, then we in the conservation community should lend a hand and offer our skills and knowledge to support such an endeavor, and not condemn it. Many great contributions toward mankind and our world were made possible by the vision and dedication of a single individual.”

There are some positive observations in the World Bank’s report. The report grudgingly admits that big conservationist plans have not been productive: “The inconvenient truth is that under current management systems, wild tigers are silently slipping away. Well intentioned international, national, and regional support for tiger conservation over the last decade has not reversed the decline in tiger populations.” The report all seems to recognize that ‘sweeping solutions don’t work for all subspecies: “There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to tiger conservation. The precise mix and type of policies necessary will vary across countries, reflecting local opportunities and pressures.” And later, “To address the root causes of the decline in tiger populations, the approaches taken would need to blend incentives for conservation (carrots) with deterrence and enforcement (sticks).” The report also recognizes the importance of eco-tourism in future conservation efforts, public and private joint management partnerships, forest ecosystem restoration, biodiversity-sensitive development and infrastructure, carbon sequestration and sustainable management. It is a sad irony that all of these checklist items are characteristic of SCT’s castigated project, which was conceived in 2002 and started already in 2002. It seems these big organizations need to reassess their priorities. Like all huge organizations, they don’t like to take ‘risks’. Time is running out for many species and we don’t need yet another study, we need concerted, dramatic, and yes, sometimes innovative action. I don’t question the ‘biggies’ right (World this, World that) to help conserve the tigers with the methods they feel best. I welcome it. I DO OBJECT when they write-off the most endangered tiger as not worth the effort. I DO OBJECT they are not clearly informing their members, many of whom are under the impression that they are attempting to save all tigers. I DO OBJECT when they actively obstruct the valid efforts of smaller conservation groups.

The World Bank report sheepishly admits: “With its broad experience in development and conservation the World Bank is well placed to learn lessons from the past.” This is the only allusion to conservationists’ criticisms of World Bank’s past failures to take proper account of human and environmental needs in its projects. Tiger conservationists in India have slammed the Bank for supporting projects such as highways and forestry plantations, which ironically, have destroyed tiger habitat. Of special note was the funding of 25 Eastern India coal mines in what was identified by the WWF as important tiger forest corridors.

The tiger initiative itself is not without criticism. Conservationist Valmik Thapar and scientist Ullas Karanth have both criticized the proposal, demanding that the Bank should first admit to the damage caused by development and wildlife conservation projects it has supported, before offering India money. They point to possible fraud and illegal cutting of thousands of trees during the implementation of the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, one of several Bank-funded, eco-development projects in India. Further, Thapar and Karanth maintain that the National Zoo had asked the Bank for advice on the development of a joint proposal, but the World Bank "went ahead without waiting for completion of deliberations”. The Government of India has decided to refuse the Bank's "offer" for a loan to save the tigers.

The Bank’s report observes: “The World Bank has a broad mandate that includes the stewardship of global public goods. The Bank’s growing engagement in environmental protection is consistent with its wider historical evolution and commitment to sustainable development. The Bank has a considerable investment in environmental protection, including in tiger and biodiversity conservation.” The inclusion of tigers in the Bank’s all-inclusive mandate of “stewardship of global public goods” means that the conservation of tigers has been appropriated by a handful of people with the power to decide which tigers should live or die. We encourage the bank to examine the vested interests of the authors of their report and to factor in the larger world. Save China’s Tigers is the only charitable project ‘doing something’ to save the subspecies. To date, SCT has been 95% privately funded out of the pockets of Quan and Bray (some 10 million dollars).

Ironically, one of the Bank’s initiatives is to host a 2010 “Year of the Tiger” Summit (from the Chinese horoscope) and touts: “This would be an opportunity for all those involved in tiger conservation to review the status of tigers and their habitat.” “Hopefully, Quan wryly observes, “this ‘Summit’ would recognize that the ‘extinct’ South China tiger very much exists - maybe they should host it in China.”
When you look into the eyes of the new tiger cub at SCT’s Laohu Valley Reserve, you see the hope for the future of the species. The cub’s subspecies has huge challenges; few numbers, weakened genetics, loss of habitat and little financial support. Hopefully all these big problems can be overcome, if only the subspecies can survive the ‘big’ organizations.

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