In the waning moments of the Year of the Tiger officials and celebrities from around the world gathered in St. Petersburg for the first-ever Global Tiger Summit Nov. 21-24. Vladimir Putin was there. World Bank President Bob Zoellick was there. Leonardo DiCaprio was delayed, but sent a million bucks anyway. Naomi Campbell made it.
Everyone knows the tiger is in decline. NGOs have been telling us that for years, using the big cat to ask for funds, promising to stop the hemmorhage even though very few NGOs have much to do with law enforcement. Everyone agrees law enforcement is key. “It’s our number one priority,” Zoellick told me during a launch party for this week’s event in 2008. An astounding 2.5 years ago, many of the same officials as in St. Petersburg this week met at the National Zoo in Washington, DC to “reverse decline in tiger numbers.” Harrison Ford was there that year. Bo Derek was there. Robert Duvall was there. So many reporters attended the event you couldn’t get near the speakers, who sat at a table in front of the zoo’s tiger exhibit.
After their speeches, zoo staff brought out buckets of frozen blood for the tigers to play with. Except for me and some staff nobody stayed to watch. Nobody had time for the live tigers. The meeting broke for lunch and was supposed to reconvene at the World Bank that afternoon, but hardly anyone outside of the NGO world bothered with the second meeting. Zoellick was not there. The movie stars were gone. No reporters showed up. Expert after expert talked about declines, about cornerstone species, keystone species, umbrella species. The need for “tiger landscapes” and how protecting the tiger helps every species in its range. But then a senior World Bank official, contravening his boss, told the room the World Bank could not legally fund law enforcement. A few months later I traveled to Sumatra where a wildlife trader there said to me, “You want to protect the tiger? Let one go in your neighborhood and see who will protect it. If you want to protect the tiger you must give me a reason to save it.”
This month’s Tiger Summit has resulted in endorsement of a Global Tiger Recovery Program whose goal includes doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022. Without concrete benchmarks, that goal is fluff. Still, at the rate the group is going it should not be difficult to double the tiger population. In 2008 the group estimated the wild tiger population to be “around 4000.” This year they’re saying “about 3200.” The numbers get smaller every meeting. Keep that in mind because leaders this week could not decide how to parcel out the money, so they’ve agreed to four more meetings next year…
Wildlife trafficking may be the only area of major crime in the world where we let non-governmental organizations, individuals, and celebrities set international policy, funding, and enforcement priorities. It’s one thing if this were a supplement to existing law enforcement, but with few exceptions it’s not.