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Tiger politics and tiger conservation: Where the stakeholders are going wrong (commentary)

tigers in a zoo

Two tigers in a zoo. Image by Michael Fraley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

  • With so many countries, organizations and industries involved, tiger conservation has strayed far from the initial goals and into politics over the decades.
  • At the next Global Tiger Summit, scheduled for Sep. 5, the key concerns the participants need to address include past mistakes and lessons learned, besides reviewing new projects, funding, and management plans.
  • All Tiger Range Countries and stakeholders need to collaborate with transparency and equal involvement from all parties, with an unbiased organization having full mandate, knowledge, capacity, ambition, network and the means to lead tiger conservation at the forefront.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Tiger conservation and politics seem two worlds apart, but they are not. In fact, politics is one of the main reasons tiger conservation has become so complicated. 

On Sep. 5, 2022, the second Global Tiger Summit is slated to be held in Vladivostok, Russia. A desperately needed summit, as we can conclude that the 2010 St. Petersburg summit was nothing more than a worthwhile attempt with poor execution, save for exceptions like India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Parties involved claim to have “learned” from mistakes. But what’s to be learned from the past 12 years to prevent entering an era full of new disappointments? Can the world allow them to make new mistakes after a program where another three out of thirteen Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) lost all of their tigers?

The 2010 St. Petersburg Tiger Summit

In 2010, the heads of governments of 13 TRCs declared themselves custodians of the last remaining tigers in the world. They recognized the reality of the situation: plummeting numbers, a decline of habitat, the danger of wildlife crime, and increased human-tiger conflict. They also acknowledged that tigers are important indicators of a healthy ecosystem and that the loss of tigers will lead to a loss of biological diversity throughout the entire Asiatic region, together with all the benefits provided by these predators and their ecosystems. The countries recalled and endorsed former manifestos, recommendations and work plans about wildlife crime and tiger conservation. 

They also welcomed the adoption of the National Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP). Explicitly, the 13 tiger range countries acknowledged and appreciated the presence and support of other governments, international organizations and NGOs. “Because it is our obligation to future generations, and because we must act now, we hereby declare the following: Strive to double the number of wild tigers across their range by 2022,” they declared and followed it with eleven action points. 

But if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

The critically endangered Sumatran tiger is the only surviving tiger in Indonesia’s Sunda Islands, where the Bali and Javan tigers are extinct. Image by Bernard Spragg via Flickr (Public domain).

Walking on eggshells

Governments have huge tasks and responsibilities with limited funds. And not all governments have the same interests, budgets, or political systems. Their actions can be unpredictable, and sometimes it’s hard to have even-level communications, to put it diplomatically.

With this situation in mind, the St. Petersburg declaration was logical. There was no mention of sensitive subjects, such as tiger farming, corruption, or industries responsible for tiger habitat destruction, let alone demanding that these industries pay for habitat restoration. Otherwise, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and China would never have signed the declaration; they wouldn’t have even attended the summit.

Many NGOs only agreed because opposing certain governments can lead to severe repercussions for their employees, volunteers, and presence in the countries. It’s no wonder that internationally operating NGOs have become politically biased. To achieve results, they are walking on eggshells.

Is there a shared vision?

One of the biggest complaints within tiger conservation is that NGOs don’t cooperate in the way they should to achieve the results wanted. The reasons are obvious. Politically-driven organizations can’t allow mistakes or situations that might affect their relationship with the governments, and they work together with care. When they do work together, there’s often a conflict of opinions. The result is a shattered and divided tiger conservation landscape. 

Recently IUCN, FFI, WCS, WWF, TRAFFIC, and Panthera presented their ‘shared vision’ for the future of tigers, which they expect other NGOs to follow. However, other stakeholders within tiger conservation do not share their vision. Not the ten governments, not the many indigenous communities that now live near or in tiger habitats, not the donors, not the media, and definitely not the NGOs from the ten tiger countries left, like the Phoenix Fund, Freeland, Born Free, Harimau Kita, MYCAT, WTI, WPSI, Nepal Tiger Trust, the Corbett Foundation, etc.

Why is this important? A vision is the foundation for strategic plans, and strategic plans are the foundation for operational execution. It’s important for the NGOs that only work on the ground level to be part of ‘the shared vision.’ They will not blindly agree to do what the major players decide. We have seen the result in the last twelve years: NGOs, governments, media, and other stakeholders go their separate ways and hardly collaborate. They start competing for attention, funding and volunteers.

Accepting what has happened

The ‘shared vision’ of IUCN, FFI, WCS, WWF, TRAFFIC, and Panthera is their first move to get a prominent spot at the table at the next tiger summit, in which the next 12 years of tiger conservation will be decided. But like Einstein suggested: if you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. 

What happens now is what happened 12 years ago in St. Petersburg, where WWF and the WorldBank were the initiators. It will only lead to more of the same: in the last 12 years, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam lost all of their tigers; Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh lost more than 60 percent of their tiger population; the number of killed tigers in India in 2021 was the highest in many years (despite the wonderful growth in numbers), just like the increase in human-tiger conflicts. 

We need to learn from our mistakes to move forward. The involved parties need to be able to reflect. But are NGOs and governments able to do this? 

Although illegal, trade of tiger parts is still a widespread problem. Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari, from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

What needs to happen?

We need to identify and examine the mistakes made by all the involved parties so far. 

An independent, unbiased consultancy firm can help analyze what went wrong where. Such an organization can objectively look at all stakeholders’ goals, plans, and execution within tiger conservation in the past 12 years. It can also help to create a truly joint vision (not shared, as that still means someone has the upper hand) on how the world wants to treat its tigers. They can even help set up strategic plans before making the operational plans.

The next thing to discuss is the timeframe. It’s not clear why in the 2010 summit, the Chinese zodiac ‘year of the tiger’ got so much momentum. But 12 years is a mighty long time to change your vision, strategic plans, and operational execution when you realize it’s not working. 

It’s also important to understand that if you want to change people’s behavior — either by getting them more engaged with tiger conservation or discouraging them from poaching, using tiger products, visiting tiger farms or tiger petting zoos — we need an international change program executed by professionals. The focus should be on drivers of change, like creating motivation, change capability, and opportunity. Influencing mass behavior is key in this.

Finally, connecting a global tiger rescue operation to a specific zodiac doesn’t make sense to the diversified stakeholders. Considering the impact China and some of its neighboring countries have had on tigers, it’s even offensive to many people.

Next Global Tiger Summit: playing politics or rescuing tigers?

Currently, countries are already working on their future tiger plans to impress all participants at the summit, as certain countries are embarrassed to admit they have failed. Some NGOs are also working on plans to better tiger conservation. These plans will be analyzed and improved before the summit starts so that the summit can be used to present a new ‘global tiger recovery program’ that will last another 12 years. This is a regular political practice when multiple countries are involved. 

If this happens, we can say goodbye to the tigers in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Indonesia (Sumatra), as it’s an open secret that these countries don’t seem to have the political will to rescue tigers or expand tiger territories. It is fair to say they’ll experience the same as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the countries that have lost all of their tigers in the past 12 years. 

Tiger conservation needs a radical change. All stakeholders need to work together on a joint vision, joint strategic plans, and joint operational execution. And the collaboration must include not only the governments and the NGOs but also Indigenous peoples, media and donors. 

Funding also needs to be managed ably. Valuable conservation capacity, focus and energy are wasted on more fundraising and brandishing, only to be able to compete with others. And since a lot more funding is needed than is available today, the industries that have destroyed tiger habitat — palm oil companies, mining companies, construction companies (roads, dams), and the banks that financed these — can and should take a step to compensate for what they destroyed. The second group is the companies that only profit from using tigers in marketing and branding (as we have recently seen with Gucci). These companies too need to get a permanent spot in the funding schemes.

We need transparency as well. If Malaysia or Indonesia are not achieving the intended results because the country thinks palm oil is more important, the world needs to know, so it can act and help to get the results. If corruption in India stands in the way of effective tiger conservation, investigative journalists must be able to expose what’s happening. If Thailand, China, or the USA won’t take serious steps to stop tiger exploitation to please the egos of ordinary people, it is important that politicians and inhabitants act. The same goes with China, Laos, and Vietnam and their constant refusal to end tiger farming, fueling the demand for tigers from the wild. This is why (social) media needs to get involved differently than it is now.

Above all, we need leadership, but not from the countries or a current NGO, as the other stakeholders will reject both. One organization needs to be appointed — or created. An organization that has the full mandate (also from the countries), the knowledge, the capacity, the ambition, the independence, the network and the (financial) means to lead tiger conservation into a future for tigers. 

It will happen, but only if the stakeholders attending the next summit in September really want to save tigers instead of playing politics.

Banner image: Two tigers in a zoo. Image by Michael Fraley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).